Lucky for us, high-tech enthusiast Lonnie Mimms never threw anything away. He never recycled any of his old computers, gadgets or other electronics.
He’s also a collector and has amassed the world’s most extensive assemblage of artifacts from the digital revolution, at his museum, the Computer Museum of America in Roswell.
Only a fraction of his 300,000-plus-piece stockpile is there now, but among the items are rare and valuable first-generation computers and the most extensive gathering of supercomputers in one place. Timelines – in words, pictures, and artifacts – show us how far we’ve come.
Mimms is on a mission to capture technology’s runaway history.
“It’s moving so fast that it’s actually being forgotten,” said the metro Atlanta native and Roswell resident, who is CEO of his family’s fourth-generation real estate business, Mimms Enterprises.
“Technology drives our lives in every way – both good and bad. Here, we’re showing where that started. The history of it hasn’t been written, at least not in a precise way,” Mimms added.
Mimms’ “wakeup call” about his extensive collection was 9/11. That’s when he took account of his life and realized he had warehouses full of machines and gadgets that others needed to see. At the time, the metro area didn’t have a general-purpose science museum, especially one focused on technology. Mimms wanted to fill that void and tell Atlanta’s part in digital history.
He began by opening an Apple pop-up museum serving select groups, and the response was overwhelming, said his wife, Karin Mimms.
Museum volunteer Audrey Birnbaum says Mimms wants his vast collection to be “not just a preservation of the past, but something to inspire, educate, and empower future minds for generations to come.”
Some machines displayed are scarce, such as a German Enigma machine from World War II and the first personal computer (Kenbak-1), which predates the microprocessor. There are those with fabulous storylines, like the Xerox Alto 1973 model.
“This is the type of machine that Steve Jobs saw in the mid-70s that absolutely blew his mind,” Mimms said.
“People will stop and look at it for a long time,” added his wife.
Mimms was a self-proclaimed “science geek” growing up in DeKalb County in the 1970s; Fernbank Science Center was his “go-to place.” He and his older twin brothers would visit the planetarium and the observatory, taking science classes during summers.
He took his first computer class there in the early ’70s, learning on an old dial-up model connected to a mainframe somewhere in downtown Atlanta.
“The idea of telling a big machine on the other side of town to do something and to have it execute your commands was just amazing to me,” Mimms said. “That just absolutely hooked me.”
From there, pre-adolescent Mimms and his best friend would spend free time playing with computers at Georgia Tech. His friend’s dad was a civil engineering professor with computer access.
“We’d get on and log in and be there all day long playing with it at 11 or 12 years old. Back then, it was pretty unusual,” Mimms said.
As he started Lakeside High School, he convinced his dad to purchase a 1976 Sol-20, promising to write programs for the family’s real estate business. That computer, which still works, is on display at the museum.
He earned an electrical engineering degree from Georgia Tech, then joined Mimms Enterprises. Computers continued to be a sideline and a hobby. He kept an extensive collection in his childhood bedroom, and then it poured over into his brothers’ bedroom once they moved out. Now, he has digital artifacts in family-owned warehouses and buildings throughout metro Atlanta.
“If someone were getting rid of something, he would say: ‘No, no, I’ll take that,’” said Karin Mimms. “He saw that our history was being thrown away.”
Mimms has purchased technology collections throughout the world, and others have donated valuable artifacts to the museum.
As technology marches forward at a breakneck pace, Mimms is pressing ahead, trying to document it all before founders and inventors start passing away, taking their stories with them.
“We have a wonderful network of folks that are all of the same mindset to try to preserve these artifacts and try to get the story right,” Mimms said. “Unless these stories get documented, they’re lost forever.”
MORE ABOUT LONNIE MIMMS AND HIS COLLECTION
- He has an extensive art collection, including original paintings from Byte magazine covers.
- A collector for 40 years, he now only looks for big machines or rare ones.
- One of his Apple computers is on display at a Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C.
Computer Museum of America. Open Fridays and Saturdays. Admission ranges from $10-$15. 5000 Commerce Parkway, Roswell. 770-695-0651, www.computermuseumofamerica.org