A fascinating walk through the refurbished Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, California
We turn off Highway 101 at Shoreline, Mountain View, California and drop into the heart of the Silicon Valley. The sprawling Google plant, the star attraction here, stretches into the horizon, but here I am, facing the superstar: The refurbished Computer History Museum. I want to skip, jump, run inside. Did Wordsworth feel this way when he saw the “ten thousand” daffodils?
(Once the HQs of Silicon Graphics, the museum has a built-up 25,000 sq-feet and names the exhibition Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing. Considering what computer-tech has done to us, “Revolution” sounds like an understatement, but it is a wonderful chronicle of computing from abacus to smartphone.)
Ticket in hand, I step in and find myself in magicland — an Alibaba’s cave of computers. Docent Jim Strickland approaches with a “May I help you”, probably hearing my string of wows. “I’m an ex-IBM employee,” he smiles, and offers to take me to the “gamechangers” in the computer story, a preview before the official tour at noon. After nearly three hours, I walk out dazed. What made the tour of the 19 galleries, each with an icon artefact highlighting a theme, so captivating? The collection, arrangement, explanation or the very history of a machine that has changed permanently the way we communicate?
The assemblage is comprehensive: from Babbage’s algorithm engine and Lovelace’s punchcards to Google’s expedition to map the world from street, sidewalk and ocean depths. You learn how to use the abacus and slide rule, gawk at the Babbage-Engine demo and Commodore-Amigas, watch the restored PDP-1 in operation, learn of the breaking of the German Enigma code in WW-II, look at video consoles playing PacMan and Atari, listen to speeches by pioneers on screens. History is told through photographs, models, demos, interactive tablet-screens, audio/visual devices — information overload!
But don’t miss these: exhibit and video on Colossus used during WW-II. Enigma cipher machine. The NeXt computer. History of games from old consoles/cartridges to touchscreens. All Apple and personal computers. Google street-view car you can actually get inside of and have your picture taken. Neiman Marcus Kitchen Computer.
Storage devices including disk drives the size of a refrigerator that couldn’t hold one-thousandth of what an iPod can. Visible Storage and “Mastering the Game: A History of Computer Chess”. The Deep-Blue Watson in the robot section.
They’re all there: In 1880, the U.S. census took seven years to complete. After a contest, Herman Hollerith’s idea of three machines punching holes to represent the information was accepted, Pantograph cards sorted information into country of origin/occupation, etc. in seven steps, completing in six weeks what would have taken two years. The basic computer was born. In 1911, time-cards were made, and IBM was established.
With ENIAC came the first electronic computer, Eckert and Mauchly made UNIVAC, and in the 1952 presidential election, when UNIVEX forecast that famous Eisenhower win, the tech-race was fired off.
In 1964, IBM invested $5 billion in the first hard-drive RAMAC, ICPU was installed, some of them on 360 mainframes that still work. The super computers — Stretch, CDC 6600, Seymore and Cray — were fast, but came packed in a fridge to reduce heat.
Down history lane
In the 70s, computing became a hobby. The first PCs are associated with Paul Allen, Microsoft appeared in the horizon, in 1976 came Apple 1, Jobs, Apple 2. The first killer app? Dan Brinkleund’s spread-sheet. A monitor was attached to SAGE IBM in 1981, BASIC, DOS made computers better, faster, cheaper and smaller. In 1983, LISA 84 Macintosh came to the market, and DTP revolutionised printing. In the 80s with OSBORNE’s idea, Pager became the first portable cellphone. Magnetic spectrum opened up and in the1990s, we got the keyboard, stylus and touch-sensitive screens. Palm pilot made a huge difference to business and marketing. And WWW was born. Multimedia applications spawned animated movies, and Pixar revolutionised their use. Games drove innovation, and around 1995, graphics technology opened. Harold Cohen and Aaron proved computers could “create”.
Alongside, in 1958, air defence introduced computers in Radar Network and Analyses, digital scope and intercept technology formed the breakthrough. IBM machines put core memory to commercial use, giving control of machines to computers. ICBMs put computers into space and computers took us to the moon in the1990s.
And this revelation: Postal department or IBM Centre, it’s women who tried out the new machines. The first programmers were women, hired to work on war-time calculating machines.
The museum constantly updates the story through conferences and special events, addressed by academicians and inventors in computing and technology.
Explore, but don’t leave without visiting the cloud café and the cool store for mini puzzles, micro-robotic creatures that work on sensors, and the see-through computer mouse.