One of the first initiatives dedicated to preserving the history of computers in Brazil, the Computer Museum completed 25 years.
However, there was no reason to celebrate the date in September: as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum was evicted from the 2,000 m² space where it maintained a fixed exhibition with more than 25 thousand items on the premises of a college in São Paulo — a complication that adds to a trajectory marked by adversity and lack of sponsorship.
The project was designed by José Carlos Valli, who, in the 1970s, opened one of the first personal computer maintenance companies in the country. To test customers’ repaired machines, Valli placed them in the hands of his sons Breno and Bruno, who spent their afternoons playing.
In the second half of the 1990s, he noticed that old computers were beginning to be discarded and, as he performed maintenance for companies around the country, he asked former customers to donate devices destined for the trash.
In 1998, already with a small collection of machines and good relations with the technology business community, Valli gained space at the busy Comdex computer fair, at the Anhembi Convention Center, where he held his first exhibition.
In 2000, Valli received from the son of José Vicente Faria Lima, mayor of São Paulo in the 1960s, a collection of “mainframes” and card punches from the 1930s and 1940s.
“During this period, everything that had a tube monitor was already considered outdated”, says Breno Valli, son of José Carlos Valli and current responsible for the Computer Museum. This way they obtained rare models from Apple and other manufacturers. “They said: ‘Come here and take out this rubbish’.”
When the growing collection of electronic relics moved from the garage to the living room of the Valli family home, in Itapecerica da Serra (SP), Dirce, José Carlos’ wife, gave an ultimatum for her husband to find a suitable place for the collection.
The owner of a chain of stores gave the curator a warehouse measuring more than 2,000 m² in Interlagos, in the south zone of São Paulo. “My father filled it to the brim,” remembers Breno.
It was there, in fact, that the first fixed exhibition of the Computer Museum was born, which received tens of thousands of students on school trips — the museum’s main audience. At the same time, it promoted traveling exhibitions in the state, at Sesc units, shopping malls and events.
Despite the good visibility achieved by television coverage, which even earned José Carlos an interview with Jô Soares, then TV Globo presenter, in 2005, the institution never received a large contribution.
When the rent for the warehouse in Interlagos started to be charged by the owner, they ended up having to leave the place. The move took three months, “trucks leaving almost every day”, remembers Breno.
The most important pieces went to a warehouse in Mairiporã (SP), which belonged to a friend of José Carlos. The rest, for eviction by the city hall, located in the north of the capital.
In 2009, after obtaining a new warehouse on the outskirts of Itapecerica da Serra, paid for by the Data Processing and Technology Union of São Paulo, they decided to recover the items that had been left behind. It would be the beginning of torment in the lives of father and son.
At first, the warehouse only had an iron fence, which left the equipment exposed. Breno, who at the time lived in the capital, received recurring calls from the warehouse’s neighbor, warning that it had been invaded by thieves.
In 2012, Breno began to replace his father as director of the museum, now established in the Santa Ifigênia region, in the center of the capital. Experiencing financial difficulties, he moved with his wife to the Itapecerica warehouse.
If, on the one hand, the environment had unsanitary conditions for housing, on the other, it kept the dusty electronic collection protected.
In 2015, Breno and his father were ready to raise funds for the museum through the Rouanet Law. However, with the high rejection of incentive legislation due to the political moment, companies no longer wanted to use the resource.
“When we got closer, they said: ‘This is now scabies, we’re not going to use this anymore'”, says Breno.
When the couple managed to move back to the capital, the warehouse was robbed again. Among the items, an Intellec was stolen, one of the first microcomputers developed by Intel, from the 1970s, with a value estimated by Breno at R$90,000.
The situation worsens when Breno and his father are surprised by an eviction order. From one day to the next, they lost access to the place and came under pressure to remove everything inside in just one week.
We didn’t even have money for gas
Father and son managed to take part of the collection to Mairiporã (SP), but, during the process, thousands of items were stolen. “They took all our 15 Ataris, all our video games, working MSX, Dreamcast that I had since I was a kid”, says Breno.
Historical items, such as equipment used to record a Roberto Carlos album and a computer that controlled traffic lights in the central region of the capital of São Paulo between the 1970s and 2000s, donated by CET, disappeared.
A collection of more than 2,000 boxes of former Brasoft products, including games and software, were lost. Breno estimates that 95% of the museum’s collection ended up stolen or destroyed. “There should have been around R$3 million worth of items.”
Involved in the creation of a small museum at the São Carlos Institute of Physics, at USP, professor Guilherme Sipahi states that the lack of interest in preserving technology in Brazil is a cultural and historical problem, “an inheritance from our colonial past” and related to the idea of Brazil as a consumer, not a manufacturer.
“Any knowledge created here is seen as inferior, not as good as imported knowledge”, he states. “There is no permanent memory and collection policy on the part of the State.”
In the USA, the Computer History Museum, located close to Silicon Valley, has maintained a strong culture of valuing and preserving technology since 1980, with the support and involvement of large companies in the sector.
“We don’t receive money from the government. It comes from ticket sales, leasing the museum to hold events, such as Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting, and donations from wealthy people,” says Dag Spicer, senior curator at the museum.
With José Carlos’ mental health weakened due to the crises, Breno is currently responsible for managing the Computer Museum, and is already thinking about a fresh start: he recently won a partnership with Microsoft, which invited him to set up an exhibition in its office in the region of Vila Olímpia, in a space dedicated to demonstrating innovations and welcoming partners and customers.
“The partnership is the result of our conviction that preserving the history of computing in Brazil is vital to understanding the present and guiding the future, in times of so many transformations, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing”, says Christiano Faig, spokesperson from Microsoft to the press in Brazil.
The company also gave Breno access to state-of-the-art audio and video equipment to record a videocast of the museum.
The help, which could bring new opportunities and a contribution to the Computer Museum, raised Breno’s self-esteem. “Now, with a smaller collection, I will be able to get more things than when we had a larger collection,” he said.