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California museums tell the history of computing

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When DigiBarn curator Bruce Damer found himself in possession of a 19th-century farmstead in 1998, he was at a loss for what to do with the two-story red barn. For a self-described "nerd with a 5,000-square-foot barn," the logical answer, it seems, was to pack it with vintage computer technology. (Admission is free, but by appointment only made through its website: digibarn.com.)

Inside, the shaded windows give the light a muted, slightly dingy cast. Tables, some covered in red-checked cloths, heave with monitors, keyboards, and hard drives.

Holding up a copy of "Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer," Mr. Damer explains that he assembled the museum, in part, to "give Xerox its due."

Long before the Apple I, there was the Xerox Alto. By 1973, Xerox had invented most of the components that would become the personal computer and the Internet: an oversize screen complete with a desktop of icons and menus, a keyboard, and a no-nonsense three-button mouse – all connected to other Altos through an Ethernet connection.

It was widely used within the company's Palo Alto Research Center. But rather than making a commercial model available, Xerox chose to focus on copiers, ink, and toner. Not only did the Alto inspire Apple and other PCs, but, according to Damer, the Macintosh business plan was actually written on one.

Besides Apple computers of all stripes, including the Apple II and the first Macintosh – signed "Woz" by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak – the DigiBarn displays some of the company's commercial failures, including a 1983 Lisa, which preceded the Mac.

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