Tag Archives: Computer HIstory Museum

Geek Alert — The Computer History Museum

We visited our Kiwi friends Alistair and Dallas in Mountain View, California.  Located in the heart of the Silicon Valley near the Googleplex, their comfortable home has fruit trees and chickens in the back yard, and our motorhome just fit in their driveway.  They were gracious hosts, even though they learned of our arrival on short notice through this blog.

Friends posing with large beer bottle

Is all Kiwi beer this size?

On our way out of town we went to the Computer History Museum.  My career was (past tense?) in computer consulting and outsourcing, so I was excited to check it out.  Diane, not so much.

The Computer History Museum explores the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society.  It has the largest collection of computing artifacts in the world (over 90,000) including hardware, software, documentation, photographs, and video.

The museum has had various incarnations over the last 20 years, but settled in to its current building (previously occupied by Silicon Graphics) in 2003.

Front of Computer History Museum building with signage

A very cool exhibit at the museum is The Babbage Engine.  In 1834, Charles Babbage designed Difference Engine No. 2, an automatic computing engine, but failed to build it.  It was designed to tabulate polynomial functions based on the method of divided differences, which Diane demonstrates here:

Diane pointing to a blackboard with a tables of 2 simple polynomials

Babbage died insisting future generations would prove his idea was sound. His difference engine was faithfully built to plan in 1991, and during a demonstration in the museum, we saw it function exactly as Babbage predicted.

Diane standing in front of large metal, mechanican device

Much bigger than an iPad!

A current special exhibit at the museum is Going Places: Google Maps with Street View.  You can get up close to the mobile devices they use to capture Street View images.

Patrick standing in open doorway of brightly coloured car with large mast with camera equipment on the top

A Google Maps Street View Camera Car

Patrick seated on a large tricycle with a tall mast with camera equipement on the rear

A Google Maps Street View Camera Bicycle

The museum’s main exhibit is Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.  It covers the history of computing in 20 galleries, from the abacus to the Internet, with informative and interesting displays.  Leveraging their subject matter, the entire exhibit is also available online.

Some highlights for me included:

Diane seated on bench of a 2 meter high cyclindrical computer

A Cray-1 Supercomputer with convenient built-in bench seat

At 135 MFLOPS  the Cray-1  was the best known and most powerful computer in the world when I began tinkering with personal computers in 1981.

Diane standing beside a white and orange pedestal computer

A $10,000 cutting board

Neiman Marcus introduced a kitchen computer based on the Honeywell 316 in 1969 as part of a continuing series of extravagant gift ideas.  It stood on a pedestal and had a built-in cutting board.  Entering recipes would have required a 2-week course to learn to use the device, using only toggle switch input and binary light output.  At a cost of $10,600 each, none were sold.

A greet circuit board in a open-topped wooden case

The Apple I, signed by Woz

One of only 40 to 50 Apple I computers in existence, now worth about $50,000 each.  This one is signed by Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computers.

A small wooden box with a button on top and a cord extneding

The first mouse?

A red, hand-held toy with white buttons

I owned a Merlin

A black-faced, white box with toggle switches and lights on the front

The first personal computer

The Altair 8800  is considered by many to be the first personal computer.

A telephone handset sitting on white cradel

An early acoustic coupling modem

Balck computer sitting in front of a black and white television

Do you remember the Radio Shack TRS-80 nicknamed “Trash 80’?

My visit rekindled the excitement I felt in my youth, when I first got my hands on an Apple II computer at my high school (thanks Mr. Sutcliffe) and wrote my first program, a text-based adventure game called “Prince Pat” – lame, I know.

A beige Apple II computer with keyboard, flat top, and Apple logo

The Apple II — the first computer I programmed

After reading this ode to tech, you may think that I’m a nerd, but if you’re in the San Jose area, I would still recommend a visit to the Computer History Museum.