Museum looks at 2000-year history of the computer

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., this week opens a $19 million, 25,000-square-foot building expansion and signature exhibition titled, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing."

More than six years in development, the new exhibit represents the world's most comprehensive physical and online exploration of computing history, spanning everything from the abacus and slide rules to robots, Pong and the Internet.

The entrance to the Computer History Museum's new exhibit, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing"

"Many times, people coming to the museum have very basic questions: 'How did that computer on my desk get there? How did that phone I've used for so long get so smart?' " said John Hollar, CEO of the museum. "It's an exhibition that's primarily aimed at a non-technical audience, though there's a ton of great history and information for the technical audience as well."

The exhibition is designed to be accessible to visitors in multiple ways, including documents, video presentations, more than 5,000 images and 1,100 artifacts in 19 galleries. It also features hands-on interactive stations that will demonstrate the principles of computing, such as being able to pick up a 24-pound. Osborne computer or playing a game of Pong, Pacman or Spacewar!

Among the key artifacts on display will be a 1956 IBM 305 computer and its 350 hard drive, the first commercially available machine of its type that nearly took up an entire room and held 5MB of data; the console of a 1950 Univac 1, the first computer to become a household name; a complete installation of an original IBM System /360, which dominated mainframe computing for 20 years; and a Cray-1 supercomputer, which reigned as the world's fastest from 1976 to 1982.

The exhibit will even include "The Utah Teapot," which graphics designer pioneer Martin Newell at the University of Utah used as his 3D computer model. The teapot became the standard reference object or test pattern for computer graphics. The more realistic that graphic designers could make the teapot look, the better their graphics engines were considered. Newell bought the little teapot at a local hardware store.

Also on display, the ENIAC, which was built during World War II and was the world's first large-scale computer to run at electronic speed.

"This is one of the greatest electronic computers ever invented," Hollar said. "We've made this a very human story. We've tried to talk about not just what happened, but what mattered in history. What mattered often boils down to the people who were the great innovators and the problems they were trying to solve, and so much of the exhibit is devoted to those important people stories."

On hand at a ceremonial opening of the new museum expansion on Tuesday were a number of technology legends, including Apple co-founder and engineer Steve Wozniak, computer programming pioneer Donald Knuth, video game inventors Al Alcorn and Steve Russell, and IBM's first female fellow, Fran Allen.

From time to time over the next year, the museum will have the legends of computing as speakers in its galleries as part of a series called "Revolutionaries."

The museum will also provide an oral history program with more than 40 interactive stations features the legends of computing. The stations will feature archived interviews with such pioneers as Chuck Thacker, from Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, who was instrumental in the development of desktop computing; and John Atanasoff, who in 1939 built the first digital computer: the Atanasoff-Berry Computer.

"We often say, 'wouldn't it have been great to have been able to talk to Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine Chapel?' " he said. "We can do that."

[Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com. ]

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