Ask what’s in the American history collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and most people will mention really old stuff like The Star-Spangled Banner or a few chunks of Plymouth Rock or musty, rusty relics of bygone eras—the John Bull Locomotive, the original Teddy Bear, or Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers. And indeed, the National Museum of American History has these things—3.3 million of them, in fact.
But the venerable institution also collects a surprising amount of stuff that looks like what you’d see in the recycling dumpster at your local Best Buy—smartphones, circuit boards and digital detritus of every description. Only, these things aren’t junk at all; they’re recently acquired artifacts that document the digital age. (You can see 12 examples below of some of the tech gadgets the Smithsonian has and find out why it's worth keeping them.)
“One thing we’ve learned is that the public is increasingly interested in things that go up to near-present,” said David K. Allison, associate director of the museum's curatorial affairs office. “It allows people to see history in perspective.”
With 42 million tons of electronics tossed out globally each year, another 497 million mobile devices purchased new, and the data we all generate expected to hit 44 trillion gigabytes by 2020, there are a lot of digital doodads out there for the taking. So, how does the Smithsonian decide what’s worth collecting and keeping as part of the national heritage?
“When we collect a [digital] object, we’re looking for something that’s interesting or part of an important event,” Allison said. “But we like a personal story if there is one.”
For example, while the Smithsonian wanted to have an early example of a Bloomberg terminal, the financial-information system that became indispensable on Wall Street, it jumped at the chance to acquire a keyboard belonging to bond wizard Bill Gross. The Smithsonian probably could have had whatever it wanted from the pile of junk from the early days of Google, too, but Allison beams over the museum’s having obtained (as a loaner) one of the company’s 30 original server racks that Larry Page and Sergey Brin built by hand not long after meeting at Stanford.
Unlike the objects themselves, collecting doesn't follow an algorithm. “It’s not a science; it’s an art,” Allison said. “We’re always looking for things that are significant historically that also have an important provenance.”
Today, the Smithsonian’s tech gadgets are spread out across several collections within the American history museum—most notably, American Enterprise, a business and commerce exhibition that opens this summer. But each represents a singular moment of the digital age and frequently the singular individuals behind those moments.
While it's nice to amass these items solely for posterity, contemplating outdated gadgetry holds real value for today's entrepreneurs, according to marketing guru and best-selling author Seth Godin.
“While it’s important for future generations [to see these items], it’s really important for us,” he said. “Because, in a world where yesterday is already obsolete, it’s nice to pause for a moment and look at what’s zooming by. We can remember it—and learn from it.”
Avi Rubin, who teaches computer science at Johns Hopkins University, says that even outdated prototypes still have lessons to teach. "Future generations will benefit greatly from studying every important step in the progress of technology," he said. "We need to study the blueprints, the scaffolding, the construction and the mistakes—not just the final building."
Ultimately, said James G. Brooks, CEO of social-digital platform GlassView, yesterday's gadgetry should be preserved because, viewed together, the items are real, physical proof of a digital revolution everyone has come to regard so casually.
"The Smithsonian was created at the tail end of the industrial revolution, which changed how people worked, traveled and got their news, and it created a world of entrepreneurs," Brooks said. "I don’t think we’re in a dissimilar period now. Much in the way the Smithsonian took the initiative to save the cotton gin and the telegraph and the sewing machine, it’s acutely important for them to do the same with the technology causing global change right now."
Below are 12 of the Smithsonian’s tech gadgets that caused so much of that global change and why it's worth holding onto them:
The Camera That Made Us Abandon Film
Kodak actually built the first digital camera in 1975—it was the size of a shoebox, had only a 0.01 megapixel resolution and spat out black-and-white pictures. It would take another quarter of a century for digital cameras to get better, smaller and affordable enough to catch on. Among the very first that did was the Canon 5.0 megapixel Powershot, which cost $399 when it came out in 2005. When Americans began abandoning film en masse in the early years of the new millennium, this is the machine that made them do it.
The Cornerstone of Google
You probably know the story. In 1996, Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began work on a search engine they originally called BackRub. The following year, they changed the name to Google. In the early days, the pair built their own servers—30 racks of them—by hand using cheap computer parts. A few years ago, Smithsonian curators were visiting Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (now known as the Googleplex, ) when they spotted one of the original servers. "We said, 'Do you have any more?'" Allison remembers. "They had one in New Jersey, and we got it on a long-term loan."
The Blackberry That Pioneered Twitter Marketing
Twitter debuted in 2006, but it took most brands another few years to wake up to the fact that microblogging was a good marketing tool. One of Twitter's early adopters was Caroline Shin, co-founder of LA's beloved Kogi BBQ truck, who'd tweet the truck's location and frequently draw hundreds of people willing to wait in line for a kimchi quesadilla. Without quite meaning to, Shin made marketing history. This is the Blackberry she did it with.
The Thingie That Lets Anyone Take Credit Cards
The Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection contains 1.6 million objects related to money. Curators added the Square Reader in March. Developed in 2009 by entrepreneur Jack Dorsey and computer science engineer Jim McKelvey, the Square Reader fits into the audio jack of any mobile device and allows any vendor to process credit cards. "Square has had a particularly significant impact on small-business owners who were once limited by their location and lack of a cash register," wrote collections manager Hillery York.
Plugging Into Ethernet
Founded in 1970, Xerox's PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) is famous for many innovations, including laser printing. But its most influential and enduring one was Ethernet—pioneered in 1973 and by 1985 the standard technology for linking personal computers together through a local area network. Today, Ethernet is still a ubiquitous piece of network architecture, and it all began with the prototype circuit board here. "We love to have prototypes like this," Allison said, "because it gives you a sense of what it takes to be an inventor."
The GPS That Helped You Eat Your Vegetables
Most people's experience with GPS is relatively recent and limited to either their cars or smartphones. What few of us consider is the role of GPS in the food we eat. Starting in 2000, Boone, Iowa-based Outback began manufacturing GPS systems for tractors and other farming equipment. The aftermarket technology enabled the machinery to triangulate its precise location from any two of the 24 GPS satellites in orbit, bringing precision to seed planting and fertilizer spreading. Laugh if you want, but the invention revolutionzied farming—and probably got your lunch to you that much quicker.
The Phone at the Center of the Great Recession
In terms of business history, no event of the 21st century has had as enduring an effect as the financial meltdown of 2008—which started when Lehman Brothers imploded, then AIG, and then the American banking system, in general. It was the controversial law TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) that stopped most of the dominoes from falling and, logically enough, the Smithsonian was looking for an artifact related to the law. "We sat around as curators asking, 'What is the material culture of the TARP? What does that look like?'" said Allison. Finally, he found the piece of technology at the center of everything: Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's Motorola. This was the phone that Paulson used in the White House and the one he used to put the law together with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "He was happy to give it to us," Allison said, "but they took the chip out."
The DNA Sequencer That Saved the Chocolate Bar
All chocolate comes from Cacao trees, which also happen to be threatened by a multitude of plant diseases. Fearing the collapse of the world's favorite treat, candy giant Mars began funding research in 2008 to sequence the cacao genome, a step necessary to develop disease-resistant plants. This 454 sequencer made by Roche was used by the scientific team at Indiana University, whose Center for Genomic and Bioinfromatics conducted and completed the project in 2010.
The Original Citizen-Journalist iPhone
When Apple's iPhone hit the market in 2007, it made news. But when citizen-journalism progenitor Andy Carvin used his iPhone for his real-time coverage of the Arab Spring in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, he demonstrated that iPhones could report the news, too. Via his Twitter account, Carvin is still doing this. His influence in the journalism world landed him a post with National Public Radio and, most recently, as an editor with First Look Media. Rather than exhibit an off-the-rack iPhone, the Smithsonian picked Carvin's as an example of the global influence a smartphone can have. Best of all, the artifact exudes authenticity: Carvin busted the phone himself.
That Laptop That Escaped the Taliban
This beat-up Powerbook G3 laptop looks pretty dated (Apple discontinued the model in 1998), but it also happens to be an important part of the post-9/11 narrative. Photojournalist Pete Souza, one of the first journalists to cover the fall of Kabul under the Taliban, used this laptop to file his dispatches. Now, the official White House photographer, Souza also snapped the now-famous image of President Obama and the White House brass monitoring the Bin Laden raid from the Situation Room in 2011.
The Father of the Internet’s Android Phone
Adding an Android phone was an obvious step in charting the recent history of digital technology, but, as was the case with the Smithsonian's iPhone and Blackberry, the curators didn't want just any phone. The owner of this circa-2010 smartphone was none other than Vint Cerf, one of the designers of the Web's fundamental architecture and "Father of the Internet," as he is widely known. These days, Cerf works for Google as Chief Internet Evangelist and, presumably, he has a new phone.
The Keyboard That Made $2 Trillion
In 1982, Michael Bloomberg, freshly fired from his Wall Street job with Solomon Brothers, began selling a proprietary desktop terminal that would provide securities traders with real-time news and information. By 1992, there were 10,000 Bloomberg Professional service terminals running in the world of finance. Today, the number is somewhere north of 325,000. Modeled on the IBM PCs popular at the time, the Bloomberg keyboard featured yellow function keys by market—commodities, currencies, mortgage securities and so on. One of the early adopters was Bill Gross, the "Bond King" who built Pacific Investment Management into a $2 trillion fund. "Gross is famous in the bond market—a well-known and extremely successful individual," Allison said. "What things does he use to do his everyday work? This [keyboard] is the essence of that."