Computer Museum History Center is an active, ongoing museum currently
housed in a Quonset-hut-style building on the grounds of NASAís
Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California. Behind it
is the enormous Hanger One, one thousand feet long and 200
feet wide, built in the early 1930s for rigid Hindenburg-sized dirigibles.
It overwhelms the museumís facilities, and graphically illustrates
a theme of miniaturization, which has benefited both aircraft and
In a few years,
the museum will be in a proper facility. In the interim, the museumís
current residence, dubbed "the visible storage facility," in the
heart of the Silicon Valley, provides a unique and intimate view
of the history of computers that may not be duplicated when the
new facility opens.
is currently divided into two rooms, one brimming with mainframes
and supercomputers, the other filled with PCs, robots, and other
staples of the computer world.
the museumís historical collections coordinator and frequent tour
leader, says, "we get a lot of the retired gentlemen who worked
on all of these machines for 40 years, and could tell you every
single fact about every machine.
another group, people in their twenties, early thirties, who are
just there for the beauty of this massive technology that they have
grown up with. Theyíre seeing these things like Johnniac," (an early
1950s mainframe), "these massively gorgeous machines, and just falling
in love them. I fell into that category when I first visited."
of All Air-Defense Computers
Speaking of massive, displayed prominently near the museumís current
main entrance is 400-square-feet worth of a late 1950s Air Force
defense computer. This was the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment)
project, each facility of which contained a whopping 100,000 worth
of vacuum tubes. The SAGE hardware in the museumís collection came
from one of a family of 28 identical computers, networked together
and brought online in 1958 to create an embryonic Cold War air-defense
system against Soviet nuclear bombers. The museumís equipment is
particularly noteworthy, since it was from the last operational
SAGE to be removed from service, in North Bay, Ontario, in 1983.
In a way,
SAGE may have been the Strategic Defense Initiative of its time.
Just as the fear of SDI was enough to cause the Soviet Union to
begin to unravel in the late 1980s, in the 1960s, larger-than-life
rumors of SAGEís existence made it enough of a threat to have helped
keep the peace, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Which
is fortunate, because by the time SAGE was active in the early 1960s,
it was essentially obsolete, as it was too slow to track hypersonic
Chris Garcia says that the SAGE program featured "massive innovations
in its architecture. Things like modems, CRTs, a decentralized network,
and the light gun interface" (pictured above), which would allow
the operator to click on a monitor and pull up information from
various databases. The knowledge derived from SAGE would later be
used in another aviation computer project, American Aviationís Sabre
airline reservations system.
Crunching, 19th-Century Style
Of course, Sage was far from the first computer employed by the
U.S. government. That honor surely must rest with the oldest example
of a computational device in the museumís collection. Itís a reproduction
of an 1890 Hollerith machine, (pictured below) beautifully recreated
by a model maker for IBM in 1980.
machineís claim to fame is its role in the 1890 Census. It cut the
amount of time spent crunching the numbers in half, from the seven
years it took in 1880, to the approximately three years spent in
the early 1890s.
cards (insert obligatory chad jokes here), pins would fall through
holes and there would be a circuit with a discrete pool of mercury.
The circuit connected to a counter, which counted up each time there
was what they called a "bip," which is just the completion of a
circuit. It would advance, and then at the end of the day
by hand everything was added everything up. It was not a
computer by todayís standards, but it pointed the way towards them.
PARC Before the Flood
No one would mistake the Hollerith for a PC-crunching data on Windows
XP, but all technology has to start somewhere. For personal computers,
that starting point was Xerox PARC, or Palo Alto Research Campus.
seen the TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley will be familiar
with the story of how both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates benefited from
the early Seventies pioneering work of Xerox PARC. The mouse, the
graphical user interface, Ethernet networking, the laser printer,
WSYWIG word processing--virtually everything we take for granted
today on a PC came out of Xerox PARC.
because the upper management at Xerox had pegged the retail price
for each PARC computer at a whopping $20,000, they didnít think
that any individuals would want their own computers.
And then came
In 1974 Ed
Roberts founded MITS and launched the Altair 8080, which sold for
$395, complete with an operating system by some nascent firm called
MicroSoft (yes, they spelled it that way, back in those hazy, Jurassic
days). In 1976, Jobs and Steve Wozniak unveiled the Apple,
The next year,
Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80, and Commodore unleashed the PET
(see photo below). (Examples of all of those early computers sit
in the PC section of the Computer History Museum.)
How do such
diverse machines as the Sage and the original Xerox PARC computers
wind up in the museumís collection? Some are donated by their designers.
Others come from corporate collections. However, many of the museumís
PCs come from donations from what Garcia calls "the angry-wife syndrome."
Numerous husbands have cleaned out their garages or basements as
a result of gentle pressure from their wives, and have come across
parts, manuals, or even a whole computer. However, he does warn
potential donors that there are certain items the museum has plenty
of, such as TRS-80s, Commodore PETs, Sinclair ZX-80s and 81s, and
Best Bargain in Computing
At the moment, the museumís "visible storage facility" is not a
museum, in the same way that say, The San Jose Tech Museum or Philadelphiaís
Franklin Institute is but it will be, soon.
NASA is planning
to convert Moffett Field from an aging Navy air facility to a 220-acre
combined research and historical park, with Hanger One being turned
into a giant air-and-space museum devoted to Californiaís role in
As part of
that, Toole says that the museum expects to "break ground in 2003,
and be operational in 2005, on a three acre tract of land, just
in front of the big Hanger One. Weíre going to build about a 114,000
square foot building on that parcel."
While it doesnít
have the flash of a modern, expensive facility, visiting the museum
now, before itís rebuilt has some advantages. "You can get an up
close and personal tour of some of these things," Toole says, "like
no place else in the world that I know of, bar none. I just wish
we had more space and time and energy to put more of them of them
out, but we expect to do that in 2005, when we really become operational."
tours put on by Garcia and others at the museum are crucial, because
unless an attendee has some familiarity with the history of computing,
the significance of the collection will be lost. The new museum
will replace personal guided tours with professionally arranged
Until the new facilities open, itís free which may just be
the best bargain, bar none, in the world of computers. Call ahead
several days in advance of a tour (at 1-650-604-2579), to give the
time to schedule it.
For more information, visit the museumís website,
which highlights both the scope of the collection, and its history.