Bit by Bit

May 1, 2013

Reading time min

Bit by Bit

Courtesy Cabrinety Family

Decades before video games were widely recognized as a culturally significant form of creative output, before museums devoted exhibits to their history and evolution and academic institutions created programs to study their impact, a young man named Stephen Cabrinety fell in love.

Born in 1966, Cabrinety played Pong and Pac-Man growing up, as many kids of that era did. His father was an executive at Digital Equipment Corporation in Massachusetts, which made some of the first mini- and microcomputers such as the PDP series. Cabrinety started programming in high school and designed a software application called OSIRIS to classify animals for the Minnesota Zoo. He founded Superior Software at age 16 and released three historical adventure games for the Apple II: The Breckenridge Caper of 1798, Legendary Conflict and Quest for the Scarlet Letter.

Early on, he observed how rapidly the computer and video game industries were changing. Perhaps due to having had Hodgkin's disease and chemotherapy as a child and therefore a greater appreciation of the brevity of life than most people his age, Cabrinety acutely felt the importance of preserving the industries' history. He began collecting computer software, hardware and manuals in 1975; what started as a hobby soon became a single-minded pursuit.

Cabrinety attended Stanford for a year in 1984, during which time he continued to write and sell software. After he stopped out, he devoted himself full time to collecting. By 1989, he had on the order of 20,000 pieces of software, 60 complete computer systems, hundreds of peripherals, and 5,000 books and manuals representing 3,000 corporations. The collection, which when spread out covered a football field, was kept at his mother's house in Massachusetts.

But his ultimate goal was to house the collection at a museum where it could serve as an educational tool and an archive for scholarly research into what he called an "oftentimes colorful, flamboyant yet misunderstood" industry. He founded a nonprofit organization, the Computer History Institute for the Preservation of Software (CHIPS), in 1989, yet struggled to raise the necessary funding to see his vision though. He was "too shy," according to his sister, Margaret.

Cabrinety's passion for the project never waned, though, and he continued to collect steadily through October 1995, when complications of cancer cut his life short. After his death, the Cabrinety family was determined to find a suitable home for the collection. Stanford, which already possessed holdings relating to the history of Silicon Valley, seemed a natural fit. After some negotiation, the University received a significant portion of the collection in the late '90s and early '00s: 12,000 pieces of software, the majority of which are games; 200 pieces of hardware, including several complete microcomputer systems; and nearly 20 linear feet of printed materials such as manufacturer catalogs and user manuals.

It's taken more than a decade to comb through the 800 or so file-size boxes of games and other software (another 150-odd mini-fridge-size boxes of hardware remain), but processing of the Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection in the History of Microcomputing at Stanford is now nearly complete. Eric Kaltman, who has been chiefly responsible for cataloging the collection, says the value of the assemblage is that it reflects not only "things that existed," but "how people interacted with them."

In addition to realia such as the Odyssey "brown box" (the very first video game console) or the Pong home-version game controller, early computer magazines—at one point Cabrinety subscribed to 60 different publications, according to his sister—reveal "perceptions of the media at the time, where people thought computers were going." The intervening years have seen video games and interactive entertainment emerge as a dominant expression of culture, Kaltman says. "It's good to be able to show a history and track a lineage, see trends emerge."

And, thanks to Cabrinety's foresight, we can.

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