New CHM exhibit charts course of computing

April 10, 2011

Susan Rambo-April 10, 2011

If you’re looking for something to do outside of ESC next week, take a few hours at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA to get a look at a great new exhibit.

A few years ago, Jack Ganssle helped me create a timeline of milestones in the history of embedded systems for the 20th anniversary of Embedded Systems Design (originally called Embedded Systems Programming) magazine. He came up with a decent list of major milestones that I tried to augment through readers’ suggestions. (Later we based our script for an ESC keynote video off the list. Some of you may remember the video at 2008 ESC Silicon Valley.) We knew the list barely scratched the surface and could quickly see the side trails to explore. However, not wanting to get bogged down with something fun and interesting, we stopped working on the list.

Now, you can see how the professional historians do it. With a great new exhibit that opened earlier this year at the Computer History Museum, CHM’s curators have compiled an all-encompassing collection of artifacts that tell the compelling story of the development of computing. The exhibit, called Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computers, explains the earliest human-powered computing devices (the Antikythera mechanism, abacus, sectors, napier’s bones, slide rules, adding machines, Babbage Engine, and so on), through World War II and Cold War relics, to the IC and all it has made possible (hardware and software). Most of Jack Ganssle’s timeline is represented there but is folded into the whole story (there's no separate embedded systems section).

Online CHM has a great timeline that gives an overview of the items in the exhibit and how they've organized it. Here’s are the topics they cover, along with an online tour of the subjects:


Punched Cards
Analog Computers
Birth of the Computer
Early Computer Companies
Real-Time Computing
Mainframe Computers
Memory & Storage
The Art of Programming
Digital Logic
Artificial Intelligence & Robotics
Input & Output
Computer Graphics, Music, and Art
Computer Games
Personal Computers
Mobile Computing
The Web

Each of the objects in the exhibit are carefully chosen for the part they play in the story. Associate Registrar William Harnack tells me that in making the exhibit, the curators had a huge warehouse full of stuff to choose from (the CHM’s permanent collection), but that other objects in the exhibit are on loan. Like famous paintings, you have to see these things in person, while you can and while they’re all in one place. Many of them are one of a kind—and were from the day they were built.

It’s a great place to take kids old enough to understand the basic concepts; the kids I saw were very engaged with the exhibit. The museum has provided an excellent teaching tool through the timeline on the website and the exhibit itself, with its clear, multimedia presentations, including some interactive areas where you can learn how to use the centuries-old calculators. Throughout the exhibit, you can listen in on short often funny oral histories from people who worked on various devices.

I recommend looking at the timeline before going. The exhibit isn’t overly technical to reach the largest audience, but it’s not breeze, either. You need time and energy to understand this stuff if you’re not already an engineer. At the end, even if you are an engineer, you can come out of the exhibit exhausted. There’s a lot of content.

If you can, go with the kid and the old timer (maybe you are that old timer). Take a docent-led tour: some of the docents are dedicated old-timers. I took my father, who worked at a national rad lab in the 1960s through the 1990s. He recognized quite a few of the machines from his work—I had to stop him from trying to start up the punch card sorter. One of the computers in the super computer area he was sure had run some of his programs back in the day. 

Get involved
Another aspect to a museum is the opportunity to get involved in a community of like-minded people, with the goal of preserving history. The museum has plenty of interesting events, talks, and screenings going on all the time, not to mention volunteer opportunities. I saw some volunteers start up the Babbage Engine (literally they crank it--it's arm-powered).

There’s a lot of brilliance, beauty, and (what in hindsight appears to be) folly in the exhibit. It's not to be missed.

Susan Rambo is the managing editor of Embedded Systems Design magazine. Apollo Guidance Computer logic module at Computer History Museum

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