Computer History Museum – Capturing our Innovation

Computers are designed, at least at the high level, by people. Computers thus in turn reflect human intellect – innovation but also copying, sheer brilliance but also blind shortcomings. Like any engineering discipline, there is much to be learnt not just about technology but also about psychology and sociology by examining the design of computers.

If you are at all interested in computing, you really should visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California.

The museum is hosted in what used to be a Silicon Graphics building, just off route 101, and in fact in which I recall I had several business meetings a decade ago. Now in the foyer is one of two magnificent working reproductions of Babbage’s Difference Engine – the other is in the Science Museum, London. Every hour or so, two curators give an enthralling demonstration of how the machine operates, the mechanics and the arithmetic behind it, to calculate values of arbitrary polynomial equations.

But the main part of the museum is a warehouse at the back. I experienced sheer exuberance and absolute awe by the wealth of history laid out in row after row after row. The Z3 of Konrad Zuse – a German civil engineer – is there, the world’s first programmable electromagnetic computer built in 1941 at the height of the second world war using 2,400 telephone relays. The 40 rack, each 8′ high, 18,000 vacuum tube ENIAC from 1946, which had to be physically reconfigured for each program “load”. Gene Amdhal’s PhD project, the 1955 WISC – complete with bullet holes (don’t ask!). The SAGE real time air defence system from 1955, with the first ever graphical user interface. The bet-your-company IBM 360 – the first machine I used. The NASA Apollo guidance computer which Neil Armstrong had to override just before the Tranquility touchdown in 1969. The wonderful Dec PDP-8, and then -11, upon which I spent many a happy hour. The first 10MFLOP machine, the CDC6600. The IMP, the original backbone of the predecessor of the internet, and on which packet-switching was first built. The first ever computer for the kitchen – the H316 – a wonderfully funny folly. The first hobbyist machine Altair 8800 for which Bill Gates and Paul Allen produced Altair BASIC. Seymour Cray’s extraordinary and aesthetic CRAY-1, -2 and -3: using cable as delay lines! The actual very first Apple-1, in a wooden box, built by Steve Wozniak in 1976. They’re all there: mercury delay lines, core memories, vacuum tubes, first silicon transistors, first silicon chips, first use of gallium arsenide, huge magnetic disks, first robot arms, first computer mice, it is just so extraordinary, inspiring, and provocative.

I was recently interviewed for a podcast about my huge enjoyment of Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine” – IMHO one of the very great books of the computer industry, and written by a lay reader for ordinary mere mortals. I was therefore delighted to see a Data General Eclipse and Digital VAX 11/780 amongst the exhibits, no doubt carefully placed to glare at each other across the aisle.

Sadly though, the museum feels, to me at least, like a cemetery. The entire warehouse has a distinctive smell of stale electronics, and all the exhibits are morbid artifacts, frozen and lifeless in their dusty racks and dull cabinets. Each of them yearns to be powered up just one more time, strains to feel the surge of bits pulsing through its accumulators, registers, de-multiplexers, decoders, caches, and yes switches and lamps.

On my visit, I stayed well after the curator had announced closing time, and managed to corner him. Surely each of these wonderful machines could be powered up again ? Even if the electronics in some cases were now no longer safe and thus a fire risk, why not simulate their operation by judiciously hiding a microprocessor in the background somewhere to cycle through lamp and circuit sequences and bring some of the thrill of these machines back again ? He responded that although this had been considered, there are apparently strongly held views by the trustees that such sorcery would detract from the raw stature of the exhibits, and perhaps demean their creators. In a way perhaps, I do understand: these magnificent wonders and follies of the most innovative and creative industry mankind has ever known now lay sadly but peacefully at rest for ever.

One of the core tenets of the Science Gallery, which I currently chair, is to bring science and technology to life by having researchers and innovators in the flesh present to discuss and explain their work to curious members of the public. A science museum is interesting, and it can be fun to try out experiments yourself. But the Gallery is different: the scientists and engineers are there in front of you, and in many cases can do the experiments alongside with (or even on!) you.

It would be wonderful to have all those inspirational architects and engineers behind the incredible machines in the Computer History Museum rightfully and deservedly proudly present when one visits. Sadly I guess, this is unlikely to ever happen. Perhaps at best there can be video interviews available to try and explain the sheer excitement behind the innovations they each made. Each one of them a master of the particular universe of virtual reality that they had uniquely created.

Whatever about trying to explain the creativity and discoveries made by computer engineers to the public, how on earth would one do it for software ? Yes, I am aware of the interest group on software at the Computer History Museum itself. But could there ever be a Software History Museum, what would it inspirationally show and how would it operate ?

Its perhaps conceivable to consider a Museum, or Gallery, of the history of computer games. Perhaps also of the evolution of graphical user interfaces. But a history, an exhibit, of software in general ?

I think the real story to be told about the history of software is not about programming languages themselves – Fortran, Simula-67, Forth, Lisp, C, Basic, Prolog, Perl, Ruby and so on. Rather it is about the evolution of programming itself: the development of data structures, the unfolding of functional as well as declarative thinking, the interplay between data and logic, introspection, aspect orientation, and so forth. Very best of all, I strongly believe that this story needs to be told plainly and simply so that the world at large can understand and appreciate how software has been evolved as we learn to reflect and begin to understand how we ourselves think and reason and learn.

I can recall after commons (the formal evening meal at my alma mater) having a heated conversation with a Professor of Genetics and various humanities students over coffee. I was the sole technologist. I fervently explained that just as there can be incredible beauty in literature and music, there too can also be extraordinary beauty in the structure of software, these artifacts of the soul and mind. However, it took a trained intellect to understand this. I was of course ridiculed, and left feeling battered and appropriately flamed. But perhaps one day, some truly gifted people will produce a software appreciation, through which mere mortals can too see the wonder, exuberance and awe of great software creations.

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About chrisjhorn

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10 Responses to Computer History Museum – Capturing our Innovation

  1. pierce says:

    Hi Chris,
    in fact there is a rather excellent exhibition on the history of computer games, it’s called “Game On” and has been touring the world for the last 7 years (further detail at – < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_On_(exhibition)" REL="nofollow">Wikipedia<> and < HREF="http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/whats-on/exhibit/past/game-on" REL="nofollow">State Library of Queensland<>).

    Obviously demonstrating the history and evolution of software development thought is a complex task, but one early step in the right direction might be < HREF="http://www.hatfulofhollow.com/posts/code/visualisingsorting/index.html" REL="nofollow">algorithmic visualisation<> work (link courtesy of Mr Mason).

  2. Justin Mason says:

    > 'Surely each of these wonderful machines could be powered up again ? Even if the electronics in some cases were now no longer safe and thus a fire risk, why not simulate their operation by judiciously hiding a microprocessor in the background somewhere to cycle through lamp and circuit sequences and bring some of the thrill of these machines back again ? He responded that although this had been considered, there are apparently strongly held views by the trustees that such sorcery would detract from the raw stature of the exhibits, and perhaps demean their creators.'

    In my opinion, it'd be valuable for the computer history museum to set up emulators, running on modern commodity hardware, beside the physical machines whose operating systems they emulate. The power of software is that this is possible — might as well use it!

    Indeed, it'd make a fantastic online exhibit, too. Many of those machines could even be emulated in a Flash applet nowadays, given today's hardware.

    BTW, your timing is great. next Monday, Engineers Ireland is hosting a talk on ‘Reminiscences of the Early days of Computing in Ireland’: http://taint.org/2009/03/23/122706a.html

  3. dmurphy18 says:

    IEEE has a section dedicated to this, see http://www.computer.org/portal/site/annals, a little more than just software, but the oral histories are neat.

  4. Roland Tritsch says:

    hi chris,

    i feel that visiting these kind of exhibitions and museums is always inspirational, because it makes you see/feel the fundamentals again.

    one other place i recommend is the “Deutsche Museum” in Munich (featureing a live-demo of a CPU failure on a “tandem” :)).

    http://www.deutsches-museum.de/en/exhibitions/kommunikation/informatik

    regards …
    roland

  5. chris horn says:

    Hi Justin,

    In fact I’m chairing the event next monday at Engineers Ireland!

    C U there
    best
    Chris

  6. Justin Mason says:

    hi Chris — ha! I should have guessed 😉

  7. pierce says:

    If you’re a fan of “The Soul of a New Machine”, then you’ll probably also get a kick out of Andy Hertzfeld’s < HREF="www.amazon.com/Revolution-Valley-Insanely-Great-Story/dp/0596007191" REL="nofollow">“Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made”<> and it’s predecessor website < HREF="http://folklore.org/index.py" REL="nofollow">folklore.org<>. It’s worth the price alone for the montage of pictures showing the evolution of the Apple Lisa UI from basic text display to windows, folders, menubars and icons.

  8. bgormley says:

    A link to a mathematician's view on the beauty/creativity of maths in a similar way to how you describe for software engineering.

    Also comments on his frustration with how maths and technology subjects are taught, similar to a previous article of yours:

    http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

  9. chris horn @chrisjhorn says:

    @bgormley

    Lockhart's Lament is a great piece – thoroughly recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it.

    Thanks for the link and the post!

  10. chris horn @chrisjhorn says:

    @bgormley

    Lockhart's Lament is a great piece – thoroughly recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it.

    Thanks for the link and the post!

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