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Work in Progress: Computer History Museum, Mountainview, CA

Famed missile guidance system utilizing micro processors.
Famed missile guidance system utilizing micro processors.
©Mark Richards Photography/ Courtesy of the Computer History Museum

History of Place

Silicon Valley, once the fertile ground of fruit farms, has long been symbolic of the wealth of the Golden State. Along this vein, the Valley has notoriously continued to become a hive for wealth manufacturing including well-known tech companies and military corporations --the ultimate military industrial complex--responsible for inventing accurate defense weaponry and top secret research. In this context, it has been central to the cultural geography of information networks and computing innovation: of computer science, communications, artificial intelligence, robotics...There is no where in the world any more densely active or with a longer history of computing.

The Computer History Museum was once located in Boston, MA. It was originally named the Computer Museum History Center and in 1996 relocated to Mountainview, CA. where the collection was placed in an old warehouse and shown to the public by a group of veteran computer enthusiasts who volunteered. Since then, the museum has developed. It is now housed in a brand newly renovated building with a lot of light in the atrium, and a large exhibition area for permanent and temporary shows. There is also a large outdoor space, an expanding repertoire of machines and objects, and a vibrant curatorial culture which has placed many items from the archive online as well.

Mountainview, CA, with its many tech hubs, proximity to Stanford University, Digital Equipment Corporation headquarters, Apple, Google, and beyond is a fantastic location for this particular institution, which is dedicated to the history of computers and computing. Mountainview's integration with the Land of Giant tech firms and military industries lends a certain grandeur and excitement to seeing 2000 years of computer history, and knowing it is still a monumental“work in progress.”

Exhibition and Design

The major permanent exhibition People and Computers: Milestones of a Revolution opened in 1998 with many exotic and important pieces of computer hardware including the MIT Whirlwind, UNIVAC 1, IBM 360/30, Cray-1, DEC PDP-8, and Apple-1. Today, the exhibit is even more fully developed. It is a maze of extraordinary machines, objects, screens, and texts, all woven together into a comprehensive "whole" of curatorial design. Daunting in its intensity, the exhibition follows along a floor map with a series of black and white arrows and signs. Detailed information is broken down such that what you look at is clear and chronological. The sheer volume and depth of the collection is thus highly "readable." Curators chose to delve deep into certain topics, such as “memory” while locating specific machines and histories of making, counting, or science. The section on Steve Clay which features “supercomputers” was a personal excursion, both an episode into the larger computer movement and a newfangled approach from Clay's mind to workplace furniture and the designing of "super computers" into corporate environments.These ideas resonate with some of the issues of todays "data centers" or use of whole buildings to compute.

What made the exhibition also remarkable were the acoustics for the flat screens film loop presentations, which, if they had not been so expertly designed, might have been an auditory nightmare. Each flat screen is, rather, accompanied by an overhead acoustic baffle/panel such that the detailed soundtracks are clear and precisely correlated to adjoining visual material. There is little room for acoustic bleed from section to section despite the density, ordinarily, a tremendous challenge for designers. Viewing and listening are thus "located" and easy to hear. Each individual section is thus audible and clearly laid out and understood or studied. The new home and exhibition design was achieved by Mark Horton, Architect, and a team of consultants which included acoustics, A/V, lighting and exhibition design experts from Exhibit Concepts, Inc., Lightswitch, Michael Stocker Associates, Electrosonic, Inc., and Bowen Technologies. A long list of credits accompanies the visuals among them The Prelinger Archive which provided most of the corporate industrial footage on electronics and telecommunications.

The Collection and Revolution! Exhibition

Curators of the CHM have included everything possible to do with computing in this exciting exhibition. From gears, stones, abaci, and exotic semiconductors to counting, calculating, and the rise of systems in terms of data, memory, and networks, it is there. All items are seen as part of a long trajectory of thought culminating in a complex computer science, use of personal computers, and the extensive industrial base and infrastructure we see today. Emerging strong during a British and American intelligence collaboration in WWII; the development of SAGE, a Cold War era American defense network, the Space Race, and eventual dominance of personal computers and the microchip, a complex weaving of military and industrial brainpower is seen as the research agar for 20th c. ideas aroung information and knowledge. How problem solving with machines, for instance---that is, getting them to do the work--contributed to theoretical collaboration is one thought provoking focal point. Nordzieck’s Analyzer, a machine designed to do the labor of solving differential equations, and the long secreted efforts of Bletchley Park and “Colossus” to crack the Nazi domination of Europe and the world were two very moving episodes documented as part of this growth and cross pollination of ideas.

Other curious pieces in the exhibition history puzzle are Napier’s Bones. You can try these counting tablets out on a quiet, tipped, felt surface. The first Google server housing and server, approximately 7 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet and made from found parts by Stanford students is on display. The famed Enigma machine, responsible for cracking Nazi code is profoundly small, sinister, and intelligent as it sits under a spot light. Early laptop concepts built in suitcases are startlingly clumsy. Finally, one of the original wooden-housed terminals from hacker history space, Berkeley Community Memory stands out as homemade and community-based. But there is much more that cannot be described because we are still living its transition.

Revolution! must be seen as vast. A broad cultural explanation of the 20th c, and its origins; on how it is that the Information Age has arrived. It must be seen, however, as a unique history of objects that no other museum has really come close to accounting for in their connection to the minds of their time.

Coming soon will be a new Software exhibit promising interactivity "with games and play" according to museum staff. This is digital evolutionary history not simply computers. A self-driving car exhibit also covers trends in automated vehicle design and is on view in a side gallery. Online, “Mastering the Game” (on chess), an earlier exhibition, is available at the Museum website which features selected histories of computers from the collection and archive.

The only sections which seemed a tad underdeveloped were those devoted to computer art and computer music. These were skeletal by comparison to the extensive exhibition on counting; data, memory, IBM, robots, minicomputers, supercomputers and so forth. Yet, arguably, the art and music trope of computing is just as "revolutionary" and has helped to produce just as many radically altering, and cultural effective ideas. One suspects that the CHM is holding on to this angle because they would be in huge company to undertake its curation. Also, save for a scant few pieces of truly community technology, there is almost zero reference to this important public topic, and its burgeoning arenas of informatics, equity, politics, hackerdoms, digital divide activism, and, ultimately, DIY innovation. All the innovation seen is from research scientists, militarists, and corporate engineers.

In today’s world of collaboration and networks, however, it is nearly impossible anymore to separate computing from art and science. Digging into these possibilities offers room for the Museum to grow. With so much future, and so many new developments still in process, it is the Museum’s job to show us not only where we are going as an industry, but how that very industry is challenged; how the people's computing movement has interpreted the machine, and how machines have been used for social change. "Computer art” and “science” arguably cannot be separated. Rather they must be viewed as factors shaping new technologies and integral to them.

Many thanks to Carina Sweet for her assistance with completing this article.

These samples from the Computer History Museum's large collection span the history of computing from pre-computing to supercomputing. They reflect the astonishing development in technology from gears to vacuum tubes to exotic semiconductors. The artifacts shown here do not represent a comprehensive presentation of computing history, but a small subset of the Museum's warehoused collection. To begin your visit, choose from any of the four time periods above.
‪#‎DidYouKnow‬ the term “debugging”—as it refers to computer glitches—is attributed to Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper? Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist whose work led to the development of COBOL, one of the earliest programming languages. ‪#‎WomenInSTEM‬ (Photo: Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, 1960. Smithsonian.)

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