Computer History Museum

2008JEK0504145Last night I arrived, for the first time, in California. I’m staying in the Bay Area for a few days before the 2008 meeting of the Vernacular Architecture Forum in Fresno. One of my first stops was at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, a stone’s throw or two from the Google headquarters (one of tomorrow’s stops). This is a very interesting place and well worth a visit for anyone who has the slightest curiosity about the subject. I haven’t fully processed the experience, so this post represents a first crack at what I saw today.

First off, I should say that, for such a new institution, the place shows itself well. Exhibits are well lit and well presented, the building is spacious and new, and best of all, admission is FREE. There were about 20-25 other visitors in the hour-and-a-half or so while I was there, which made for a pleasantly quiet visit.

I’ve wanted to see the Computer History Museum for about a year, as I am fascinated by the idea of a museum devoted to objects whose significance can’t be grasped (or even guessed at) by just looking at them, at least for most of us. They need, badly, to be interpreted. It’s hard enough presenting history in a museum environment, which tends to require either acres of wall text or small armies of interpreters (the CWF approach).

On the main level, there are currently three exhibits: one devoted to “Silicon Valley Pioneers,” which consists of short biographies and photographs of 20th-century movers and shakers in the industry, accompanied by a couple of objects each and mounted in display cases. This is familiar stuff in a familiar format. Substitute governors, or abolitionists, or baseball players, and you can imagine a similar display in your favorite history museum.

A small exhibit devoted to the history of chess-playing machines was, likewise, familiar in format, with large banners, lengthy wall text, and illustrations telling the story from the Mechanical Turk to Deep Blue. Because this is a modern museum, there are video displays, too.

2008JEK0504156The main event in the museum, however, and certainly the main reason to go, is its collection of historic computing devices, from abaci and slide rules to calculators to a couple of supercomputers and rows upon rows of personal computers. These are all arranged in a large room, organized by type and then, seemingly, by chronology. The name of this exhibit is “Visible Storage.” I only had about an hour in it but I must say that i was very sorry not to have had more.

There is very little interpretive text in this exhibit. For the most part, labels describe the particular innovation that one device or another represents: a leap forward in memory storage, for example, or one of the first Cray supercomputers. But if you’re looking for basic information, such as “what does that button do?” this is utterly lacking. And of course it is. For the more ancient devices, such as a 1959 DEC PDP-1, or a Cold War missile guidance system, knowing what the “On” switch is wouldn’t help much. The ONLY way, really, for a non-technologist to make any sense of this is with some context.

2008JEK0504171Context, then, came in the form of an enthusiastic docent, who was leading a tour around for much of the time that I was there and generally seeming to chat with anyone who would listen. I’m not sure how else you could explain this stuff to anyone.

The exception to the need for extensive interpretation, of course, are the computers that a visitor has had some direct experience with. From listening a little to some of the other visitors, it was clear that I was the tyro in the room (“do you know why they wired these things this way? It’s because they needed to…” “Ooh, boy, I threw away two of these just a couple of years ago.”) Still, it was strangely affecting, and somehow validating, to see the first computer I ever used, a Radio Shack TRS-80, on display. And then there was the Commodore 64, and a couple of Apples, and a box for Zork I, and the fancy HP calculator I had in high school. And then, whoops, on a table a few feet away, here’s the on-board guidance computer for a Minuteman I.

Despite the destructive power at the business end of a few of these devices, and despite the scrubbed appearance of some of the corporate computing machines, there’s something very ad hoc about most of the displays that make it clear how much of this history was made up along the way. There are those little raised-letter, stuck-on labels (original!) everywhere, and tiny notes stuck onto panels (“Patch the input first and the output second, or, turn off the plate power.”) Though I have no idea what most of these early machines did, it’s not hard to sense some of the delight their original users had in just making them function, to say nothing of getting them to solve particular problems.

The weirdest object in the room, and the one that surely warrants a more extended discussion than I have the time or patience for, is a sleek “Kitchen Computer,” offered by Neiman Marcus for $10,600 in 1969. Its interface consists of a series of obscurely labeled switches and LED lights. Long and low and made of lovely red and white plastic, it was meant to store and retrieve recipes. The panel describing it notes that “there is no evidence that any Kitchen Computer was ever sold.”

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