Ted Nelson’s old junk mail is a treasure trove for tech nerds
Devotees of computing history know Ted Nelson for, among other things, Project Xanadu (the project, launched in the 1960s, which gave us the concept of hypertext) and Computer Lib/Dream Machines (a 1974 introduction to computers that remains a great, quirky read). The man is visionary in the truest sense of the term. But it also turns out that he spent years doing something that sounds mind-numbingly mundane: saving vast quantities of junk mail, which he brought upon himself by filling out requests for information in magazines.
6,857 items from Nelson’s collection are available on the Internet Archive, and it turns out they’re not mundane at all. Mostly (but not entirely) involving electronics and computers, they document a sizable chunk of our technological legacy and are rife with evocative period design; even if all you do is scroll through the tiny thumbnails of brochure covers, they’re great fun.
But do dig in if you have the slightest interest in the gadgets of yore and how they were marketed. Even just skimming the first few dozen items, I stumbled across pieces of genuine history such as a 1984 Apple press kit with the original Macintosh press release and an explainer about the new computer’s revolutionary interface. I recently wrote about the fact that failed shopping-mall fixture Brookstone started out as a mail-order purveyor of specialty tools, but haven’t seen an actual Brookstone catalog from the early days like the one Nelson preserved. Ampex’s Silicon Valley signage just came down; the Nelson collection has vintage fliers that show how important Ampex once was.
I plan to spend part of my weekend luxuriating in this stuff, and expect to have trouble pulling myself away. Though I only just now heard about the project (via my friend Martha Spizziri), Motherboard published Ernie Smith’s fine article about it last year, with quotes from Jason Scott and Kevin Savetz—two champions of digital preservation—about why these theoretically disposable materials are worth saving and even celebrating.