The early technology trail blazed boldly and
brightly, and in the space of a only a few years we have now begun
to look back at computer history in a quest to make sense of where
we might be going.
By Dr Christine Finn
Humans, of course have a memory strongly
connected with smells, and as soon as I walked into the computer museum,
the smell hit me in the head, and I remembered the old days in which
I spent a lot of time around these old "computing engines".
Mazor, Intel pioneer, November 2000.
Like a laptop next to an ENIAC, the Computer Museum History Centre
is dwarfed by the giant hangar of the historic NASA Ames base at Moffett
Field in Mountain View. But not for long. A major scheme over the
next few years will convert Hangar 1 into NASA's California Air and
Space Centre and a much-enlarged History Centre will be right next
door. It's designed to be a world-class institution. It also develops
the idea of computer history as a resource, and one which is set smack
in the heart of Silicon Valley, putting it within its own geographical
context. The visitor will reach the Centre by driving through the
technological hub, and emerge back into it. Here, for the most part,
past and present will collide.
The comprehensive tech collection at Boston's
Science Museum performs the same function on the east coast, drawing
its context from the innovations of Route 128. Apart from such science
museums, for which computers are part of a broader history, those
institutions dedicated to new technology have a display which features
a familiar array stretching back over the past century and a half.
Some have examples of the forerunners to computers, the era which
claims Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. A few Heath Robinson-type
machines make an appearance. An example of an early Cray - the world's
first supercomputer - is a popular as well as a
well-known name. It is also an example of function and design in combo,
the circular seat shape being the most efficient way of wiring the
Courtesy Ashfield District Council
of Ada Lovelace
Museum History Centre is a non-profit body founded in 1996. Its
mission is to preserve and present for posterity the artefacts and
stories of the information age. At November 2000, its holdings included
more than 3,000 artefacts, 2,000 films and videotapes, 5,000 photographs
and 2,000 linear feet of catalogued documentation and gigabytes of
software. Documentation ranges from advertisements to programming
The Museum acknowledges itself to play a unique role in the history
of the computing revolution and its worldwide impact on the human
experience. The role of individuals in this process is crucial, as
those who owned, or even played a role in the design of, early machines
donate much of the material. As at Intel Corporation's in-house museum,
the artefacts can generally be traced back to a source, and through
that process the stories, retold. Technical lectures and talks are
a vital part of the Museum's work.
John Toole, the Museum's CEO, tells me that for the retired tech worker,
the chance of describing his role in the development of the early
technology can be emotionally cathartic. One man was moved to tears,
and explained that this was the first opportunity he'd had to tell
Courtesy Intel Corporation
Intel Museum, Santa Clara
It receives a range of donations - from hardware and software, to
audio recordings and ephemera - and given the quantities of machines
produced, particularly personal computers, the potential material
base is enormous.
The Centre also specifies what it doesn't want. It's difficult for
us to turn people away when they have taken the time to contact us
about a particular item. Sadly, we must do this when the item in question
is something the History Centre already has or has decided does not
meet the Collections criteria.
As at November 2000, some of the items no longer accepted included
the following: IBM PC, IBM PC Jr, Commodore PET, Commodore 64, Commodore
VIC-20, Apple II (+/c/e) TI 99/4, Times Sinclair. These items were
made in large quantities and they have enough representative samples
of them already. The Centre supports the recycling of unwanted machines.
The smaller-scale Computer
Museum of America, on the campus of Coleman College in La Mesa,
California, accepts all donations of computer-related materials except
for defective monitors. Working computers not used by the museum are
refurbished and donated to schools ands other non-profit organisations.
The CMA also has archive and research materials, and established a
Hall of Fame to honour those making major achievements in the computer
As computer history interest grows, individuals
and organisations are setting up other collections in different locations.
In America, as more tech hubs emerge outside the East and west coast
corridors, it suggests that before too long, it will be possible to
visit a range - however limited - of computer history at any drivable
distance. On the Internet, the Vintage Computer Festival and Classic
Computing sites flag up numerous user-groups with an interest in preserving
specific machines and associated material.
Image Courtesy Hewlett-Packard Company
Garage, 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto
The Computer Museum History Centre
is part of a Silicon Valley tech-trail, which stretches from the corporation
museums, such as Intel, to the significant Tech Museum of Innovation
affectionately known as the Tech - in San Jose. The trail includes
the headquarters of household names and the space-time relationship,
which is their evolution across Silicon Valley. In San Jose, the expanding
Cisco buildings are little short of a form of monumental corporate
architecture in style and scale. The development of a company's research
headquarters as a campus has spawned significant landmarks, such as
the Sun campus, which incorporates historical motifs in a mission-style
in keeping with the area's architectural heritage.
Low-key in scale but highly significant historically are the founding
locations of the significant companies. These include the garages
associated with the early days of Apple and Hewlett Packard. In these
buildings the first key developments were made. In Palo Alto, the
company bought the Hewlett Package garage, with house attached, in
late 2000 - for more than $1 million.
Another historical location is Bucks. A cultural icon that thinks
it's an American diner. It's a place which marks time in two ways.
The historic high-tech deals done over breakfast, and the assemblage
of things hanging from, attached to, gracing and playfully disgracing
its walls. A pretend Russian cosmonaut dangles from the ceiling. A
sign from a nuclear fall-out shelter is close by displays of pens,
thermometers, silicon chips and wafers, ribbons and braids, swords,
a flying fish, a broken John McEnroe tennis racquet. And that's just
for starters. Follow that visual smorgasbord with titbits of fascinating
conversation involving venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs.
Image Courtesy Michael Steinberg
at Bucks Diner, Woodside
As it is, the owner Jamis MacNiven, who runs Bucks with his wife,
regards it as a museum of Jurassic Technology. Its diners number the
great and the good of Silicon Valley, who take breakfast early and
conclude their multi-million dollar deals over coffee and muffins.
Netscape was founded here, Yahoo! Was turned down twice. The Bucks
menu is a newsletter, the web page a gallery of fun and fame. James
used to be an artist in New York City. When I moved in here, it was
a white box, he says, casting around the walls. Now he maintains his
creativity by dreaming up ideas for the walls, and writing a film-script
about Silicon Valley.
If these walls could speak, this would be an oral history book of