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The Computer Graveyard - Computer History

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".
Stan 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

Courtesy Ashfield District Council

Early Portrait of Ada Lovelace

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 machine.

The Computer 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 manuals.

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.

Courtesy Intel Corporation

Artifacts, Intel Museum, Santa Clara

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 his story.

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 history field.

Image Courtesy Hewlett-Packard Company

Hewlett Packard Garage, 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto

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.

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.

Image Courtesy Michael Steinberg

Jamis MacNiven at Bucks Diner, Woodside

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.

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 Silicon Valley…

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First Science 2014