September 10, 2003

Property Disposition

I was visiting Ann Arbor over the last couple of days. My parents live there and I went to school there. It's a cute little town if it wasn't so small and so cold. It also houses of my shrines, one of the most important and resonant places for me, the University of Michigan's Property Disposition. Property Disposition is a strange kind of university organization. They get rid of stuff that the U no longer wants, but which still is perceived as maybe having some value. All stuff counts, whether it's a shelving unit or an electron microscope or a dishwasher. Many large organizations solve this problem with big auctions in which whole pallets of semi-random stuff are sold to local junk dealers and to reps from other large organizations. A pallet with a desirable camera lens may also have a baby incubator and a box of cleanroom booties along with it. Property Disposition is different: it's open to the public and stuff is individually priced and parted out. This makes it one of the best garage sales in the universe, and an ongoing one at that.

To me, it's also a museum and an amusement park, a puzzle and a game. For 15 years I've been going there whenever I can (which nowadays means once or twice a year, but it used to be once or twice a month) and looking through the stuff that's in the warehouse. The stuff constantly changes since Property Disposition's job is largely to empty the warehouse as quickly as possible, so there's always something new. What's there are the products of the material culture of science and medicine: microscopes, meters, centrifuges, specimen cabinets, strange boxes, examination tables, grey Steelcase desks and lots and lots of computers. Much like Ebay is, to me, the most important repository of material culture information about America, Property Disposition is—taken through time—the ongoing documentation of the history of American science in the later 20th century.

It's also science artifact purgatory. It's the last place that much of this stuff is still in its original condition as an instrument. Sometimes the stuff gets a second life in some other university role (U departments get first crack at it), but more often than not when it leaves, it leaves to either be remade in some industrial capacity, as a personal object, or, as is often the case, as junk. Behind Property Disposition are two big dumpsters: one has things that have metal in them, this goes to a metal recycler; the other, things that don't have metal, this goes to the dump. I used to dumpster-dive the recycling container nearly every week, pulling interesting-looking technology from it. For a while, I had a Saturday decompression ritual: I would go to Property Disposition, pull out some interesting-looking piece of technology from the dumpster, and then spend the afternoon disassembling it while listening to the Down Home Show. It was a meditation on the objects. I learned a lot about how things are made and, most importantly, it was a way to honor the objects and all the hard work they embodied, to rescue from them one final bit of knowledge before I took the disassembled pieces back and tossed them back in the dumpster. The products of technology are so emphemeral, despite the fact that they're made out of rock, metal, glass and plastic, that something in me felt they needed one final send-off.

Sadly, the quality of the objects has changed as science has changed. The full-on Frankenstein Esthetic faded in the early 90s as handmade custom designed machines (often in wooden crates with brass hinges, unlabeled dials and hand-soldered hardware) gave way to general-purpose computers, but you can still find pieces that echo the jerry-rigged, messy way that science was conducted, before all of that became hidden in lines of code and databases, and I still get a rush from it, from trying to figure out what did what and how it all fit together.

This last trip there were three things of note:

  • Two Ardent Titan computers. Graphics supercomputers from the early 90s. Probably $200K apeice when bought (and a bargain at that). The company was never very big and merged with Stellar (to form Stardent), which also closed down quickly, so these may be 20% (or 50%) of the ones that still exist. These seemed to be complete, with monitors, keyboards and hard disks. Ironically, it's the mundane stuff that's sometimes the biggest problem with rescuing old machines: a mundane-looking cable can be so proprietary that it'll cost as much as the rest of the hardware to get one. I almost bought the one they had about a year ago that was missing the monitor and disk for $150, but then I realized I'd just have to put it in my parents shed, and there's a PDP-4 there already that they're none too happy about. $250 apiece.
  • Two TRW view cameras of some sort. Looked to be from the 70s. Big things that looked like video cameras, but had view camera lenses and shutters and Polaroid backs. Triggered electrically. One had "NUCLEAR" written in fading marker on the side. I can only imagine what these took pictures of (particle traces?). $100 apiece (probably worth five times that just for the fast lenses and shutters).
  • A bunch of Cabletron MMAC cabinets. These were rackmounted Ethernet and fiber switches from the early 90s. I remember when the university was buying 'em for lots of money. They presaged the whole Net boom, the crazy consolidation in the industry (I think Cabletron got bought by 3COM) and the collapse. When they were bought, it was because the U realized that bandwidth needs were growing and it needed to keep up (well, OK, maybe there was more of a plan), not because devices like these were to become the foundation of a massive cultural shift 5 years later. I think they were $15 apiece.

I rarely buy anything there, though, since I have too much stuff already, but I'm already looking forward to the next trip.

Posted by mikek at September 10, 2003 02:49 PM

Baltimore has something similar, but much more primitive: City Surplus. Leftovers from schools and city agencies fill a couple of warehouses: record players, film projectors, 50 gallon drums filled with old textbooks, and thousands of desks.

I was fortunate enough to grab an old 9600 baud modem with a Bell logo on the front. With it's black plastic face, aluminum chassis, and two inch diameter cable it was the size of decent dictionary and weighed about 20lbs. $5.

Posted by: Erik at September 11, 2003 01:47 PM
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