Science & Technology



This software titan proposes a computer museum to mark Philly's role in starting the digital world

Joseph N. DiStefano, on

Published in Science & Technology News

PHILADELPHIA -- "Computers didn't start in Silicon Valley. They started here," in Philadelphia, says Jim Scherrer.

The sales-software mogul has been a fan of vintage computing equipment since, as a late 1970s Penn grad student, he wandered into the "cages and boxes and blackness" in the basement of Penn's engineering school, to find relics of ENIAC, the pioneer electronic computer that helped usher in the digital era.

Now he wants to set up a computer museum -- a Compuseum -- and provoke a next wave of innovation.

He poured forth this vision at a beer-laden table in the Franklin Institute locomotive room, with his friend John Gruber, who writes the Daring Fireball blog and podcasts for Apple fanboys.

This was at the pre-party -- hosted by another Scherrer admirer, Chris Fralic of FirstRound Capital -- for the Philly premiere of General Magic, the joyful, nerdly film about the Apple Computer refugees who designed the first smart phones and apps in the early 1990s but couldn't plug them into the public internet because there wasn't one.

General Magic was a spectacular case of before-their-time in Silicon Valley. Scherrer says Philly tech can relate.


The name of the nation's premier computer industry center, Silicon Valley, recalls the raw material used by California transistor-makers who supplied integrated-circuit materials for 1970s computers.

Philadelphia radio factories had supplied earlier computer pioneers with vacuum tubes -- first factory-made at RCA Victor in Camden, clipped by the millions into Philco and Atwater Kent radios, and adapted as binary switches for innovative computing machines like ENIAC, powered by 17,000 off-the-shelf tubes.

So Philly should really be known as "Vacuum Tube Valley," Scherrer adds: "We want to trademark that." He acknowledged the tubes were prone to moths -- "the original computer bugs."

His bow tie and checked jacket recalls Scherrer's long-ago stint as a Chestnut Hill Academy science teacher and as a Penn graduate engineering student, finding computer artifacts "in cages and boxes and blackness in the basement of the Moore School," with tech's usual lack of reverence for sacred objects once unplugged.


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