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Computer History Museum Gets the Attention It Deserves

Soulskill posted about a year ago | from the back-when-bits-were-made-out-of-wood dept.

Hardware 53

mcpublic writes "For years the Computer History Museum has been quietly collecting and displaying the computational relics of yesteryear. Now, finally the New York Times Arts Section shines the spotlight on this most nerdy of museums. Speak Steampunk? You can find a working replica of Babbage's Difference Engine in the lobby of the museum's Mountain View, California home. Of course, the vast majority of the collection is electronic, and though 'big iron' is king, that hasn't stopped dedicated volunteers from bringing back to life pioneering 'mini' computers like the 1960 PDP-1 and the first video game software ever: Spacewar!"

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Bits were never made out of wood (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41500523)

I know it's a joke, but bits are information, so they're not made out of anything. They have a physical representation, but the representation does not equal the bits.

Re:Bits were never made out of wood (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41500569)

And my Commodore PET never had fur. I was so disappointed :(

Re:Bits were never made out of wood (1)

ozmanjusri (601766) | about 2 years ago | (#41503649)

Imagine how upset I was with my Amiga...

Re:Bits were never made out of wood (1)

RobertLTux (260313) | about a year ago | (#41500739)

you might want to check the your pipes since i do not see "bits made out of wood" in the linked article.

and i know of a set of (plastic) counters that are used to teach number so "bits" could be made out of wood

Re:Bits were never made out of wood (4, Funny)

msauve (701917) | about a year ago | (#41500811)

You've never heard of a "wood bit?"

Re:Bits were never made out of wood (1)

unixisc (2429386) | about 2 years ago | (#41506739)

Or a drill bit?

Re:Bits were never made out of wood (3, Informative)

NixieBunny (859050) | about a year ago | (#41501083)

True, but for 25 years they were made out of ferrite donuts.

Difference Engine is NOT Steampunk (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41500535)

Babbage's Difference Engine is most certainly not steampunk. It is actually useful. Why the hell is anything made of brass and gears called steampunk these days?

Re:Difference Engine is NOT Steampunk (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501319)

Why do you think that steampunk is not useful?

In general, steampunk just means that you are building something using nineteenth century technology that would be easier to build with twenty-first century technology. It should all be useful. If it's not useful, then that's a failure of the designer. The Difference Engine is classic steampunk. One of the first steampunk novels was Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine: []

The real point of Steampunk (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501627)

is to force chicks to wear corsets so their sagging tits hit their chins.

Re:The real point of Steampunk (1)

i286NiNJA (2558547) | about 2 years ago | (#41510551)

Lol no mod points too bad

Berlin's Computerspielemuseum (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41500567)
Visited this summer. They have quite a collection of computer games.

Re:Berlin's Computerspielemuseum (5, Informative)

dingen (958134) | about a year ago | (#41501271)

You should definitely check out the Heinz Nixdorf museum [] in Padenborn, Germany. It's the largest collection of old computers on display anywhere in the world. Make sure you get the English audio tour from the reception though, as nearly all of the texts within the museum are written in German.

It truly is an awesome place, with lots of wonderful machines, including (but by no means limited to) a piece of a Jacquard loom, a real German WW2 Enigma, lots of huge old IBM machines, a full Zuse Z11 (including a modified typewriter to function as printer!), some PDP's, a Xerox Alto, an Altair 8800, an Apple I. One could spend a week in there, it's simply amazing.

Re:Berlin's Computerspielemuseum (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501593)

that's paderborn. as in, paderborn ist so schwartz, dass menchen schatten in kohlenkellern werfen.

Re:Berlin's Computerspielemuseum (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501669)

Make sure you get the English audio tour from the reception though, as nearly all of the texts within the museum are written in German.

Ich spreche Deutsch, du unempfindlichen Klotz

Re:Berlin's Computerspielemuseum (1)

dingen (958134) | about 2 years ago | (#41506775)

Well even if you are able to comprehend the German texts, I'd still recommend you get the multimedia tour, as it is a great way to guide you through the museum. Without it, you can't help but feel a bit lost, as there is just so much to see there. And there's some pictures and video's there as well which aren't featured in the museum itself, so if you're a completionist, that's a good reason too to invest another 2 euro's into the little HTC Android box they give you to tour the museum with.

You are not alone (4, Insightful)

jaromil (104349) | about a year ago | (#41500647)

Right on!
FYI Another "Working Computer Museum" up since about 15 years in Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily, nearby Siracusa,
privately run by volunteers and collectors: []
(website in Italian and some english, remote access to computers offered via telnet and ssh)
Definitely the way to go. Wait another 20 years and we'll all be establishment :^)

Re:You are not alone (1)

herrfeuer (2741951) | about a year ago | (#41501689)

Yes, i was there one time. The people in Palazzolo Acreide are friendly and the guys at the museum treat that ancient hardware good.

This is *vitally* important (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41500829)

People have to understand the history of technology, otherwise they forget what it took to get here, or worse, they attribute every single invention to NASA or space. Nothing irks me more than people who are willing to forget entire generations of researchers, scientists and general tinkerers just so they can continue to believe in their space mythology.

Re:This is *vitally* important (2, Funny)

turkeyfeathers (843622) | about a year ago | (#41501505)

Nonsense. Every single invention in computing came from Apple.

Re:This is *vitally* important (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501867)

OK but that still leaves the wheel, the zipper, Tang and Teflon as items that were invented by NASA because of space, right?

Core Memory (5, Interesting)

djl4570 (801529) | about a year ago | (#41500875)

It's easy to forget that early computers used expensive labor intensive ferrite core memory. Core memory had to be assembled by skilled technicians who threaded each core on a matrix of wires. I once heard that four kilobytes of twelve bit memory cost over thirty thousand dollars back in the early sixties when silver was still the coin of the realm. These old relics were also power hungry. Sac State once had an RCA 301 that was stashed in the Non Destructive Testing lab (The building was adjacent to the river levy and immediately south of the Guy West footbridge and at the time used for storage.) We counted nearly a farad of capacitance in the power supply modules. I wonder what became of the core module from that machine. We used it as a display piece during a couple of open houses.

Re:Core Memory (1)

NixieBunny (859050) | about a year ago | (#41502191)

I was just playing with some cores the other day. I found them on ebay a while back, two bottles each with 1.2 megabits of 1/64" diameter ferrite donuts. Add your own wire and sense amps.

These things would have been threaded with three 46 gauge wires each. They had machines to make that easier, but not quite automatic. []

Others call it "boxes of junk in your work room" (4, Funny)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | about a year ago | (#41500927)

I call it, "Computer History Museum!"

Every geek has one of these museums at home: cables with biomorph connectors, interfaces to nowhere, Ninja Star shaped floppy disks, 1K ICs, a smokey fan . . .

You just can't part with this stuff . . . you WILL find a use for it someday . . .

Re:Others call it "boxes of junk in your work room (1)

russotto (537200) | about a year ago | (#41501815)

Ah, so true. Oldest piece of computer history I have is a 4 kilobit core, though many of the bits have broken off of it. Apple II disk controller cards, 4116 memories, random power supplies, various Macs, any number of modems...

Re:Others call it "boxes of junk in your work room (1)

NixieBunny (859050) | about a year ago | (#41502205)

It's all fun stuff. The most interesting pieces I have are an IBM 704 module with eight IBM vacuum tubes, and a CDC6600 cordwood logic module (see it on Wikipedia). Just sold a Remington Rand tube module to a collector. Apparently, it was the only one from its type of computer still in existence.

Re:Others call it "boxes of junk in your work room (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41503327)

I just bailed in a hurry from a recent residence. I left everything in the attic behind except an old portable compaq 386 that's intrinsically wierd. Most of it wasn't too archaic anyway.

I need a museum museum (2)

AK Marc (707885) | about a year ago | (#41501063)

I went to The Computer Museum (Boston) before The Computer History Museum was ever opened. I hadn't realized The Computer Museum was closed until this article and I looked it up. Like the Boston Museum (the official owners of The Computer Museum after the merge), my local museum has some computer stuff on display, but an Atari 2600 and other garage sale level equipment on display in good condition isn't the same as a room-sized CPU, annotated and with lights.

Re:I need a museum museum (1)

Waccoon (1186667) | about 2 years ago | (#41502659)

When the Boston museum closed, I'm not sure how much of a loss that was. Most of the computers were new PCs running displays showing all the neato things new PCs could do. The ones that weren't were Amigas and Ataris, but they were all covered with painted wooden boxes and wrapping paper, so you couldn't tell what they were, because that would involve showing actual computer history. The Macs had their own room with huge Apple banners all over the place, and all the machines were running game-quality edutainment software. There was no Sinclair, Commodore64, or Osbourne, but they did have Apple II computers in the Apple room, and an AtariST running the gift shop cash register. The only visible Amiga was an A2000 Toaster system connected to a camera and used a genlock to show people standing in front of psychedelic backdrops, but it has all its branding removed and had no history card. The only machine I remember that predated the 80's was (I believe) a PDP-8, but it was all in pieces. The rest of the museum was photographs of old IBM mainframes and printouts of computer art.

It was hardly a museum that showed the evolution of computer technology. It was just another showcase with brand new Ti calculators and Macs in the gift shop, although they did have a few samples of 4K core memory for sale. I still have the one I bought.

Re:I need a museum museum (1)

AK Marc (707885) | about 2 years ago | (#41507561)

It was back 20+ years ago now, but I remember most the room-sized annotated CPU. And the history of computing for the local museum starts at about 1980, there is little back before then. I do remember some displays of older stuff there I still haven't seen elsewhere, but for as good as my memory is of a trip 20+ years ago to a museum, I don't recall if it was any actual hardware or pictures of hardware, not that it matters significantly, when you are 20 feet away behind glass, as museums usually do.

Highlights of my visit (2)

safetyinnumbers (1770570) | about a year ago | (#41501115)

Sitting on a Cray, and seeing the Utah teapot.

Meanwhile In Europe (4, Interesting)

Ganty (1223066) | about a year ago | (#41501137)

For those of us on the other side of the pond there is a reasonably good computer history museum at Bletchley Park. The computer section at the Science Museum in London is also well worth a visit providing you remember that the Pilot Ace is on the ground floor.


Re:Meanwhile In Europe (1)

rbrausse (1319883) | about a year ago | (#41501893)

as one living in continental Europe: I never had the feeling that the UK believed it is part of the continent. The Channels seems to be wider than the Atlantic...

Re:Meanwhile In Europe (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501941)

@rbrausse There are big chunks of the UK that don't believe they're part of the UK! Wales, Scotland, Cornwall... England is going that way too.

Re:Meanwhile In Europe (2)

CohibaVancouver (864662) | about a year ago | (#41501945)

The Channels seems to be wider than the Atlantic...

I remember once visiting my Grandparents' home near Dover and noticing they could see France out their kitchen window. I was stunned to learn that while they had visited us in Canada, they'd never been to France. Not once. When I asked why, their reply was simple: "Because it's full of French people, dear."

Re:Meanwhile In Europe (1)

jaromil (104349) | about 2 years ago | (#41504883)

Right. It is Europe that is part of the UK.

-- YACHM: []

2 museums in the Bay Area (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501139)

Besides the computer history museum, there's also The MADE [] a video game museum. I'm not sure which one is "the most nerdy of museums".

Digibarn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501257)

Attracts the most neckbeards and stoners than either of those.

Dumbed down musums (2)

Animats (122034) | about a year ago | (#41501145)

Classic science and engineering museums have been dumbed down. The Smithsonian used to be hard core, back when they were in the Arts and Industries building. The assumption was that visitors knew something about the subject and were there to see the historic original. The Henry Ford Museum used to be hard-core. ("Capacitor, Cornell-Dublier, 1932"), but they added more "explanatory" exhibits.

The South Kensington Science Museum (now the "London Science Museum") has gone soft, too. I saw it in 1985 and 2002, and it felt dumber in 2002. They still have Maudsley's lathe (the first really good machine tool) on display. But the collection of James Bond cars from movies was getting the attention.

Re:Dumbed down musums (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#41501267)

Capacitor, Cornell-Dublier, 1932

Awesome, I'm using that name if I ever sign up for a /. account!

Re:Dumbed down musums (1)

Guy Harris (3803) | about a year ago | (#41502185)

Capacitor, Cornell-Dublier, 1932

Awesome, I'm using that name if I ever sign up for a /. account!

I'm using it if I ever start a rock band.

Time marches on. (1)

westlake (615356) | about a year ago | (#41501595)

The Smithsonian used to be hard core, back when they were in the Arts and Industries building. The assumption was that visitors knew something about the subject and were there to see the historic original.

Placing technology in its historical and social context is part of the job of the modern museum.

Rosa Parks Bus [] . Driving America []

How much can you learn from a static display ---- how much more from the dynamic?

John Bull: Riding the Rails []

Re:Dumbed down musums (2)

Osgeld (1900440) | about a year ago | (#41501925)

" I saw it in 1985 and 2002, and it felt dumber in 2002. "

chances are, you were dumber in 1985 and the "musums" have stayed the same.

Re:Dumbed down musums (1)

Guy Harris (3803) | about a year ago | (#41502173)

chances are, you were dumber in 1985

Unlikely [] , unless he regressed from 1984 to 1985.

Re:Dumbed down musums (1)

Man On Pink Corner (1089867) | about 2 years ago | (#41502913)

It's not clear whether he grew dumber or smarter, but he certainly made the transition from respected engineer to patent troll [] effectively enough.

Re:Dumbed down musums (1)

awfar (211405) | about 2 years ago | (#41503477)

Agreed about the radio, electronics display; on my last trip to the Henry Ford, I was sorely disappointed it was largely gone. I prefer museums that are mostly conservationists, vs. the educational focus; they apparently pay the bills by turning the museum into a field trip destination for schoolchildren. Compared to many, many years ago at the Henry Ford where they had much of their vast collection on display, from steam tractors, dynamos the size of a house, old vacuum cleaners, to electron tubes, much of that have either been sold off or returned to storage apparently to make more room for this education component. It was so frustrating I wrote Henry Ford museum to that effect, and it is simply not worth going back except for the rare must-see thing*. There are already plenty of places to gain an overview about the topics (libraries, classrooms, books, magazines), but not enough places you can actually immerse yourself in the myriad of the actual, detailed, technology of an age, like you could there. *The autos and transportation is still outstanding!

Good to see more attention (2)

linebackn (131821) | about a year ago | (#41501465)

It's great to see computer history getting some more attention. Many people like to turn up their nose at anything "old", but there is much that can be learned from computing history. There was much innovation and not all ideas were fully explored.

And the mistakes of history are repeating themselves. Anyone who thinks touch screens are new should look up the 1983 HP 150 touch screen computer.

You will look silly in 20 years (1)

gelfling (6534) | about a year ago | (#41502383)

When they trot out an iPad 2 (which has more LINPACK compute power than a Cray-2 BTW)

Core Threading Machine (1)

Gim Tom (716904) | about 2 years ago | (#41502603)

I remember sometime around the late 1970's or early 1980's of seeing an exhibit, in Atlanta, of Soviet Computer Technology. This was perhaps during one of the thaws in the cold war that happened at that time. The one thing that I remember most clearly was a complex machine that had automated the threading of ferrite cores to form memory planes. These were all hand made at that time. It was the star of the show. Of course it was also invented in the same year that the last ferrite core based memory was being used in the US for most computers. The new memory chips were faster, and cheaper than even the machine made core planes.

However, magnetic memory was still used for its ability to retain state without power for special applications. Only when NVRAM reached a point where it was better, faster and cheaper did most non-moving magnetic memory go away.

novels mobile blog (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41504401)

i like it

I've been pimping them for years. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41504847)

UK Museum (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41506209)

For those on this side of the atlantic... or

The Attention it DESERVES! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41517495)

Because we all know that nothing really exists until it's acknowledged by a parochial east coast newspaper.

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