Vintage Geek Museum, 100 West Fifth Avenue, Knoxville, September 2023
Imagine stepping back to simpler times when stunning entertainment and informational options exploded into our lives. Pong, Frogger, and — if your school was really advanced — playing Oregon Trail on the Apple II e. All of it calling your name just beyond the dial up tones and a brief couple or three minutes wait. Your age may dictate how much of what I just said makes any sense at all. For the young among us: There was a time before, and then the very early stages of, computers. Barely recognizable in the current era when our cell phones have computing capacity far beyond those rudimentary beginnings, they were, nonetheless, marvels at the time.
Aaron Ishmael, owner of the Vintage Geek Museum at 100 West Magnolia (the former AAA building with the odd decorative tower) grew up in that era with rapidly changing technology. His dad worked in a radio station, his mother taught school, and he had a front seat along with his generation for perhaps the biggest technological shift in human history. Now he’s sharing it with the city in the form of his Vintage Geek Museum. How he and his one-of-a-kind museum came to be and how it came to be located in Knoxville, Tennessee is a story.
Aaron grew up in a small town in northeastern Colorado. “Most of my childhood was spent on geeky things. I liked computers, obviously.” The family didn’t have a lot of money for the latest technology, but the town had a Radio Shack which, along with the technology in the radio station where his dad worked, gave him enough exposure to get hooked for life. He learned programing and began writing code on a “very basic Keller Computer II.”
His passion began when he was “six or seven,” and he thinks the primary attraction was the newness of the technology. By the time he graduated high school in 2000, he’d gone completely geek about technology. “The idea that you could make this machine do things to improve your life or organize your comic book collection” fascinated him. “Any opportunity I got to interact with a computer, whether at the radio station, or when my mom finally got a computer in her school . . . I wanted to know more about it, how they worked, and just explore.”
As an outgrowth of his time at the radio station, he became a radio engineer. He got a two-year degree locally. He also got a degree in Cisco networking. He remembers the radio station being the first in the region to get a weather report in the form of an mp3 file. It was over a dial-up connection.
He stayed in radio engineering for most of his career. He spent time in increasingly larger-market stations in Denver, Washington State, Macon Georgia, often “building out new technology for new projects for studios or on-site locations.” In 2007 he had an opportunity to work for a broadcaster in Wyoming who had acquired a number of permits for new stations to be built from ground-up and worked there until about 2011, securing tower sites, getting the equipment, and building it all out.
ESPN then offered him a position in New York City, “which in terms of a radio career path is the top. It was fantastic. It was a chance to do a project on a really big scale. We built brand new studio facilities for them on West End Avenue in New York City.” He said it took him from doing $25,000 projects to doing a $5 million dollar project. He worked with them through 2014 when they moved him to Bristol, Connecticut to lead radio technology for the company.
He’d married Jessica in 2012 and the two had a child on the way, so they were ready to leave New York City. He’d long wanted to own his own station and had worked toward that. In 2016 he found his first station, which was off-air at the time. The station was 1120 am just outside Seymour, Tennessee. They visited east Tennessee, loved it and he began work to bring the station back. They turned the station back on in December of that year.
Before they committed to moving to east Tennessee, he acquired two stations (one purchased and another leased) in the Burlington, Vermont area, an area they loved, and they decided to move to that area of the country, instead. When his parents, who were still in Colorado, began to have health issues, they rethought their plans, sold the station in Vermont and moved to Knoxville (the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood) in 2019 with plans to bring his parents here as soon as possible.
He’d also written a piece of software, Automation Import Manager, that helped automate some radio station operations. In 2017 and 2018 it began wide adoption in the industry and allowed them the financial flexibility to make their move more comfortably. The software has continued to grow in popularity and “is now on over 4,000 radio stations.”
They’ve loved their time here and have used it to add additional stations to their portfolio. They own and operate 106.1 (WVLZ – rock), 104.9 (90s, 2000’s), 105.9 (70’s and 80’s), WKCE (the original 1120, but moved to 1180 and 105.1 FM, mid-century radio), and they’ve added a station at the 1120 frequency (leased to someone else), and they’ve added 850 am in Maryville (a work in progress). He modestly said they are working toward being a major force in the market.
During the pandemic, his attention turned toward moving his parents here. During a series of trips to Colorado to prep them for the trip they dug through old boxes and he found his mother’s Apple IIe (which you can use at the museum) from her old classroom. He began playing with it and was washed over with nostalgia for the excitement of the era. He began collecting via Ebay and other sources. As his collection grew, he began to ponder the point of the collection. “This is fun, but what’s the point if I can’t share it with someone else.” He knew he couldn’t be the only one who would get a rush from taking a trip to bygone years and he also thought there might be interest among younger people who were curious about the machines that went before those they knew.
He came up with the idea of a museum “and that’s what officially started the insanity.” He had a space on Kingston Pike and took the collection there initially in 2021. The effort produced introductions to additional collections which made his own collection grow, prompting the need for more space. In 2022 he started a Youtube Channel, with the idea of offering access to the collection to people beyond our area. They’ve grown to over 5,000 followers, showing people the vintage machines and software. He brought on Joe Lewis, a professional videographer for that part of the project.
He saw a listing for the AAA building at 100 Magnolia, he grabbed it. “It was already set up.” All Souls Church owns the building, but agree to lease the front end to him. They moved in during the Summer of 2022, opening only this May. He hired two other people after the move, Sally McCracken as full-time Collections Manager and Justin Strong who works part-time on the machines. Sally had an extensive background with other museums, like the Museum of Science in Chicago. He credits her with many of the details of the museum as well as cataloging and organizing the collection.
The collection is available for exploration and continues to evolve. The software in the room represents only a small portion of the software in the collection, so expect to discover new things each time you visit. I can honestly report this is a unique experience. “There is a computer museum in Atlanta, but it’s not really hands-on. You can see vintage machines behind glass. I’ve been told there is one in Maryland, but smaller and in someone’s home.”
The interactive museum is currently open by appointment. Tours are offered through the website, as well as appointments to explore the equipment and software in more depth. The website also offers memberships which offers commercial-free videos and additional content, plus the simple opportunity to support the museum. They hope to add regular hours in the future. So far, they’ve had tourists, family groups, and office groups. They’ve also started having return visits by those who want to get a little more geeky than your average geek.
Check out their videos and get on the website to make your reservation. From there, just channel your inner geek.