In the summer of 2022, an engineer named Keegan McNamara, who was at the time working for a fundraising technology startup, found his way to the Arms and Armor exhibit at the Met. He was struck by the unapologetic mixture of extreme beauty and focused function captured in the antique firearms on display. As reported in a recent profile of McNamara published in The Verge, this encounter with the past sparked a realization about the present:
“That combination of craftsmanship and utility, objects that are both thoroughly practical and needlessly outrageously beautiful, doesn’t really exist anymore. ‘And it especially doesn’t exist for computers.'”
Aesthetically, contemporary digitals devices have become industrial and impersonal: grey and black rectangles carved into generically-modern clean lines . Functionally, they offer the hapless user a cluttered explosion of potential activity, windows piling on top of windows, command bars thick with applications. Standing in the Arms and Armor exhibit McNamara began to wonder if there was a way to rethink the PC; to save it from a predictable maximalism.
The result was The Mythic I, a custom computer that McNamara handcrafted over the year or so that followed that momentous afternoon at the Met. The machine is housed in a swooping hardwood frame carved using manual tools. An eight-inch screen is mounted above a 1980’s IBM-style keyboard with big clacking keys that McNamara carefully lubricated to achieve exactly the right sound on each strike: “if you have dry rubbing of plastic, it doesn’t sound thock-y. It just sounds cheap.” Below the keyboard is an Italian leather hand rest. To turn it on you insert and turn a key and then flip a toggle switch.
Equally notable is what happens once the machine is activated. McNamara designed the Mythic for three specific purposes: writing a novel, writing occasional computer code, and writing his daily journal. Accordingly, it runs a highly-modular version of Linux called NixOS that he’s customized to only offer emacs, a text-based editor popular among hacker types, that’s launched from a basic green command line. You can’t go online, or create a PowerPoint presentation, or edit a video. It’s a writing a machine, and like the antique arms that inspired it, the Mythic implements this functionality with a focused, beautiful utilitarianism.