Computer History Museum: Get In Touch With History

The mission of the newly re-opened Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, California, is to preserve and present for posterity the artifacts and stories of the information age. As such, we wouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the museum last weekend, trying to be part and have a “feel” of how computers where like before the desktop home computers took off only two decades ago. Before that time, computers were much different, and I am sure that every geek on this planet would like to witness how they looked and felt like. Read more for the report and plenty of pictures from our visit.

The building was acquired just last October and used to be SGI’s, built 5-6 years ago “back when they still had money”. It is standing next to the SGI campus and it is very modern and spacious with several levels and storage departments.

The museum is open at 1 PM Wednesday and Friday for a 1-hour tour, and on every first and third Saturday of each month for a 1 PM and 2 PM tours. The tours are free for the public. Most tours are done currently by volunteers. We were lucky to be guided by Randy Neff, a knowledgeable guy with a… humor twist.

We started the tour by seeing the first IBM machine, built around 1890, which was made for census purposes. The guide quickly told us the history of IBM and how it became the company we know today. Then we moved to other artifacts like huge hard drives (3 feet in diameter, 25 platters, 100KB per head) and all sorts of tapes from the past 50 years.

One of the highlights of the museum is that they had an Enigma machine on display (check pictures below). A rack of ENIAC followed, which I found very impressive. A quick explanation of Von Neuman’s report followed and we saw a few computers created based on this report: Johniac and then Illiac (“NASA had to replace its Illiac with the slower… Cray because they couldn’t find spares anymore in the ’80s”).

We saw a lot of machines from IBM including one of the first S360 series, then it was Digital’s turn with most of the PDP range in full display: PDP-8, PDP-11 etc. We also saw a very… funny machine, the “Kitchen Computer” created in the ’60s for the… housewives of the time. Too bad they never sold any of these (actually, they only made one) as it was too expensive and the small display was only showing binary code instead of human-readable text. It was definately not something that housewives would like for $10,600 USD of that time.

Other interesting exhibit items were the RAID machine that was built in Berkeley in 1991, which was the one test machine that brought us the RAID protocol, and the first router of the ARPA Net (a.k.a. Internet).

Check the pictures and then read more below for the second page of the article.

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20th anniversary Mac, a BeBox and an Apple Cube
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A Sun workstation and a NeXT Cube
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The Enigma Device
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Another analog computer
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Computer that helped in the Great war
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The IBM census machine
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The first router
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16 KBs of memory
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An analog computer
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The Wiskonsin “shooting” computer
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Another defense system
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Type of memory
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A rack of the legendary ENIAC
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Part of a CRAY
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Storage system based on photography technology
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A book of the “father of computing”, Babbage
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Computer which handles nuclear bombs
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Defence system with an ash tray
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More memory
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Yes, this is memory
Click below to go to the second page

We were also introduced to some massive governement computers of the time, created for defense purposes and were in full serving till 1975 (“my favorite part of it is the built-in… ash tray” Randy said). Another interesting machine was a computer created by a student of the Wisconsin uni in the 50s/60s, and for the last few years was forgotten in the basement of a house where the son of the owner was shooting at with his… gun (“his son seemed to be in guns a bit”), so the computer has a few holes… Other interesting artifacts was an all-analog computer, and a big Johniac (not all of it was saved) where the company which had it has threw it outside of the building next to dumpster. Out of complete luck, one of the… architects of the computer was… driving by and he saw the computer sitting out in the sun in LA next to the dumpster. He thankfully was able to save the front of the computer and donate it to the museum. The museum also had on display a supercomputer built by Intel, sporting a few hundreds of Intel CPUs all working in SMP mode.

More supercomputers followed and we got to see 2-3 models of super computers that came out before the ’70s, and then of course, was the CRAY experience. The museum has on display the CRAY-I, CRAY-II and the unique CRAY-III (only one was built) all side by side. It feels great to be standing next to the whole range of the golden era of CRAY. Really beautiful, powerful and outstanding computers.

At last, we got around to see the desktop history, starting with the first home computer of 1971 (“that no one knows about”), then the Altair, an Apple I (signed by Woz himself), Xerox Alto and Xerox Star, an Atari, an IBM PC, a TRS-80, an Osborne, an Amiga, early Sun workstations, SGI workstations, Apple II, Classic Mac, Apple Lisa, Apollos etc. There were also an Apple Cube, a 20th anniversary Mac, a NeXT Cube, and a BeBox.

There were a lot more items but they are too many to mention them all. In fact, the museum is preparing on utilizing more of the building and bring on display more items which currently are sitting unsorted in their storage room out of public sight. An important matter I would like to mention here is the donations one. Although the tours for the public are free, the museum needs donators to get it going. People can donate either money or artifacts. A lot of well known people have already helped financially the museum (e.g. Dennis Ritchie (C and Unix), Dave Cutler (VMS and NT architect)) and many companies as well, like Intel. The museum needs the support of IT companies, like Apple, Microsoft or IBM to grow, so if people from these companies are reading this, I hope they are going to help out financially and otherwise. Regarding artifacts, the museum has clear instructions as to what needs to get donated and what’s not. One thing is though, the museum mostly has US and Japanese technology, so if you have any UK, German, Russian or other rare computer artifacts, consider donating them to the biggest computer museum of the world.

All I have to say is that I had a great time in the museum and I highly recommend you visit it too if you are living in the area, or if you are passing by. It is definitely worth seeing, it is part of history and for an hour, you feel that you become part of that history too. A must-see for all friends of technology.

A semi-offtopic note: The Australian museum of computing needs your help or its artifacts might end up in the streets.

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The “Kitchen Computer”
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The Z3 computer, a significant part of computing research
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The Cray-1
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Cooling unit for the Cray-2
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This small and… wigged computer is the one and only CRAY-3
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All the three Crays in the line
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Another super computer, done by Mr. Cray before he founded Cray Inc.
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Xerox Alto
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PDP-8. Check on the reflection for the license plate of “UNIX”
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Digital’s PDP-11
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Big hard drives
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The Osborne 1
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Sculley’s Powerbook (ex-Apple CEO)
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IBM S360
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The head of a huge hard drive
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Altair 8800
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Apple-I signed by Woz
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The CHM building
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The CHM sign
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Light-based art from the reception

All pictures were taken by Jean-Baptiste Queru. Thanks JBQ.


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