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Exploring the 'Computer History Museum'

October 27, 2008

by Mark Ollig

On the Internet is a showplace where computer junkies and fans of computing technology and its history will want to visit.

The “Computer History Museum” possesses an incredible wealth of vintage computer systems, software and related information which will have you browsing online for hours.

Aside from having a web site, the museum is actually a real “brick and mortar” building located in Mountain View, CA in what is known as “Silicon Valley.”

The museum states its mission is to preserve the historical technology and computers (most of which still work) for future generations.

The Computer History Museum places importance on preservation and education.

This museum has become a unique resource for researchers, historians, computing professionals, students and humble columnists.

Research services are offered to scholars by museum staff researchers, as well as through the museum’s detailed web site resources.

This reminds me again of Paul Otlet and his foresight and work on creating a depository for all the world’s information, which was located in his “Mundaneum.”

It was in 1910 when Paul Otlet established a fee-based research service with his Mundaneum. People from all over the world would submit research questions.

Getting back to the Computer History Museum, I was amazed at the large number of people who come there to study the computers used from yesteryear and to listen to stories about the “birth” of the information age.

The museum’s vision is to “investigate the computing revolution and its impact on our daily lives.”

The Computer History Museum is home to one of the largest international collections of computing artifacts in the world. It contains computing relics from the past along with many thousands of photographs, videos, documents and the earliest types of software.

It started with Gordon and Gwen Bell, the museum’s founders, who opened an exhibit of computing devices from their personal collection in the front lobby of the Digital Equipment Corporation building back in 1979.

The museum’s name became “The Digital Computer Museum” and later became “The Computer Museum.”

In the fall of 1984, The Computer Museum opened its doors to the public in Boston.

At that time, the museum focused on computing history lectures and featured highlights of the Bell’s computing collection.

I have no idea if these “Bell’s” are any relation to the famous telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, but it would be fascinating if they were.

The year 1996 saw a significant portion of the Bell’s Boston collection moved to Mountain View, California.

The Computer History Museum became a non-profit organization in 1999.

By 2000, the remainder of the collection from Boston arrived in Silicon Valley.

In 2001, the museum shortened its name from “The Computer Museum History Center” to its current name, “Computer History Museum.”

The museum currently features three onsite exhibits: “Visible Storage,” “A History of Computer Chess,” and “Innovation 101.”

I was very interested in the history of computer chess.

Still under construction is the museum’s newest exhibit called “Timeline of Computing History” which is due to open in 2009.

The Computer History Museum offers lectures, seminars, workshops and historical perspectives about the computing and software industry.

Many of these presentations are given by the actual computing “pioneers” themselves, which makes it more noteworthy.

Bill Gates of Microsoft gave a presentation at the Computer History Museum a couple of years ago.

“Museum Fellows” are individuals who have made ground-breaking and long-lasting contributions to the development of computing.

Over the past twenty years, the Computer History Museum has honored these computing pioneers at their annual Fellow Awards Celebration.

The museum has many of these presentations available on video so you can watch them at their web site.

The museum publishes an annual spring publication called “Core,” and the museum’s staff also publishes articles with both technical and historical content in various journals and magazines.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was a computer pioneer who designed the first automatic computing engine.

Babbage “invented” computers, but he never actually built any of them.

In 2002, 153 years after Babbage designed it, the first Babbage computing device was built in London.

The “Babbage Difference Engine No. 2” was built to the original drawings. It weighs five tons, consists of 8,000 parts, and measures 11 feet long.

An identical Babbage Difference Engine was completed in March of 2008.

The Computer History Museum currently is displaying the identical “Babbage Difference Engine No. 2,” the amazing Victorian era computing device – which strangely, no one from the Victorian age ever got to see.

The Babbage computer will continue to be on display at the museum in Mountain View until May 2009.

Museum tours are free and hours of operation are located on the museum’s website, which is http://www.computerhistory.org.

Be sure to check out this week’s “Web Site of The Week” forum where your ol’ bits_blogger will present to his faithful forum followers, some new and interesting information from inside the Computer History Museum.