Computer History Museum

Yesterday I went to visit the Computer History Museum. I’d been meaning to do so more or less since I got here, but in the absence of any knowledge other than that it existed, it had been easy to pass on by. During the week, however, F2, Emily & I went to a talk there titled Digital Crossroads: It’s Easy Being Green. So I knew where it was now, and we got to check out the Visible Storage section somewhat briefly before the talk started.

Anyway… it was pretty cool. I feel more compelled by my head than my heart to check out such things… it stands to reason that I should care, given this is a museum devoted to the origin of my entire field.. still, it still struck me as museumy – walking around looking at animate objects for a few hours. Granted most of their really impressive stuff is a) only small portions of the original building-sized machine, and b) so old even the Russians aren’t producing parts for them anymore1…. nonetheless, you’d think they could actually make a museum about interactive machines, you know, interactive. There was an effort to this end in the computer chess exhibit there, but… meh. “Interactive” there seemed half covered by videos you could “interactively” start at your leisure, which is to say, completely pointless given the existence of Youtube.

That’s a bit of a hard critique to open with… I enjoyed going. They have an impressive assortment of things… from parts of ENIAC, s/360s, PDP-*s, etc… all those mainframey things. Not to forget the Cray 1 & 2 (and part of a third). One thing I thought particularly cool was a silicon ingot on display – I’d never ever seen one before, even in photos. It’s a bizarre lapse of documentary that you can watch any number of videos on how ICs are fabbed, from creating the masks through to shipping, yet they always miss the part about actually creating the wafers themselves.

On the smaller side of computing they also had all sorts of PCs of yesteryear – including Apple’s I, II and IIIe, and the Lisa, and an original 128k Mac. They also had the Alto, which I felt was significant to see in person. And the original IBM PC, and PC junior, which I’ve never really seen much of – though I’ve heard of it – which is a suitable testament to how little anyone cared about it.

There was also a whole progression of ‘computing technology’ far predating electric computers; all manner of different forms of slide rule, mechanical calculators, card printers and a tabulator from the 1890 U.S. census, which was pretty damn impressive at the time, allowing the census to be collated in six weeks and completed in less than two years, as opposed to the eight or more required previously (the estimate, so said one of the museum employees, was that the 1890 census would take 12 years to complete manually, which kinda sucks when you’re doing these in a 10-year period).

And there was an Enigma machine, as well. Kinda surprised me, but I guess that makes sense, as naturally it’d be a particularly valuable exhibit for any museum.

I was very surprised by some of the mechanical calculators… including the cylindrical slide rulers, which I’d never even heard of before, yet which were apparently far superior to the traditional straight rulers… huh. They looked quite impressive, actually… like a really really complex maraca. ;)

Although I must say that the ‘oldest’ part of the lineage are the abacusii and counting beads, which makes sense, yet the ones one display are nearly all less than 30 years old. Huh? One looked almost exactly like the ones we had in primary school. Apparently they still need some donations of real museum pieces for those.

I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or not that they included a 44 meg SyQuest drive in one section, alongside various almost-prehistoric forms of magnetic disk… hey, I used those SyQuest drives up until not that long ago; they don’t belong in a museum yet; I ain’t that old. :P

That pretty much encompasses the museum as it is today – they demo an operating PDP-1 or PDP-8 or somesuch twice a month, which didn’t coincide with my random visit, and there’s the aforementioned chess bit, and kind of a sidenote section on “Innovation within the valley” or somesuch. For a place which advertises that it has 12 million pages of historic documents in the field, you certainly wouldn’t know it from visiting. :/

It’d be really cool if they had operating versions of some of the machines… I mean, the more recent things – IBM PC onwards – I’m sure still work, or could be made to work pretty trivially. And seeing anything that involves a tape drive, mechanical relays, vacuum tubes and/or magnetic disks the size of a dinner table, that’d be cool. Alas, I imagine most of the stuff of that era is no longer functional, and they probably prefer to preserve them as-is than fiddle about trying to fix them. :/ Still… if they have duplicate hardware in some cases, they really should see about getting one copy running… how cool would it be if kids could visit the museum and actually play the SpaceWar! arcade clone, or watch a punch card sorter go through its 2,000 cards a minute…

Still… ’twas a nice way to spend a few hours of an otherwise empty afternoon, and I hope if nothing else my attendance gives them encouragement.

And I had to laugh; they had one of the original 30 or so racks from Google’s first server room, which was all randomly pieced together and looked suitably Googly (i.e. hacked together from spare parts)… but the sign they had said something along the lines of “an example of reliably and fault tolerance…. something something something… most of the servers never actually worked”. How is a rack two-thirds full of dysfunctional hardware an epitome of fault tolerance and reliability?!?

  1. I can’t remember which machine it was now, but it was noted that by the end of its life replacement vacuum tubes were being purchased from Russia – what may have been the Soviet Union back then – because nowhere else in the world still made them. :) ↩︎

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