Computer History Museum: The Famous Past in our own Backyard
By Joyce Kiefer

comp_history_jul_2011_02.jpgOnce upon a time, back in the middle of the last century, computers were bigger than the palm of your hand. Way bigger.  They were large and boxy with banks of tape decks the size of refrigerators and ran on vacuum tubes.  They were fed by punched cards and spit out information on loops of wide printer paper.  They had flashing lights but no screens.  But did you know that computers go farther back than the 1950’s?  There was the abacus, the Babbage Engine, and ...

I wanted my granddaughters Gwynne, Age 9, and Amri, 16,  to learn the tale of computers before they left Silicon Valley to move to Washington State, so I took them to the newly renovated Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.  What better companions could we bring along with us than two older generations of computer experts – their father, a software developer, and their Grandpa Bill, a retired programmer?

The museum presents “R/evolution, the First 2000 Years of Computing.” (The line between the R and the E in “revolution” suggests both the social and the technical points of view.)  The location, fittingly, is the former headquarters of a Silicon Valley giant, Silicon Graphics (SGI).    The museum reopened early this year after a two-year expansion and remodel.  Now you can follow the development of computers through 19 alcoves that each feature a landmark artifact and describe its importance. Accompanying videos show how it works and present interviews with its developers.


comp_history_jul_2011_03.jpgWe started at the beginning, although we could have followed directions on the Visitor Map and gone directly to whatever was of interest. The museum presents a five-minute orientation film, but our family experts chose to bypass this.  However,  I think it’s helpful to find out how a museum introduces its purpose and the basic theme of its exhibits.  

As we began to move through the exhibit alcoves, Bill spotted a huge slide rule.  Nostalgia swept over him; he used slide rule in high school trigonometry.  I, in turn,  was stopped by the Hollerith Census Machine.  When I started college in the mid-1950’s, I thought my course registration cards filled with numbers and holes meant to be read by computers had to be the latest thing – a symbol of the modern world I was about to enter on my own.  But no, Herman Hollerith invented the punched card machine to process the census back in 1890!

I look at computers from a practical aspect:  what can they do for me?  I don’t want to know the process involved to get the result I’m after.  Just tell me what steps to follow and I’ll write them down.  “No, don’t write anything down; just listen to me!” said my former boss and my husband.  They and my son-in-law focus on the logic, mechanics, and the math that drive the computer to do what it does.  The quote on one of the museum walls by inventor/professor Donald Knuth echo the way these techies regard computers:

“Computer programming is an art because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and because it produces objects of beauty.”


Our nine-year-old granddaughter Gwynne has never seen a computer larger than a desktop PC.  So the portion of a 1940’s ENIAC computer on display was beyond her comprehension.  One of these huge computers filled a 1,000 square foot room but had much less storage than a laptop.  I recall a New Yorker cartoon of a giant computer spitting out a small message.  The technician reads,  “It wants a goat sacrificed to it.” 

She will never get the joke.

But all of us were fascinated by the German Enigma encryption machine from World War II.  It looked like a portable typewriter (Gwynne hasn’t seen one of those, either) but it converted each letter typed into another letter to create a code.  However, the Allies figured out the code before WWII began and were able to keep a step ahead of the enemy.  What messages went out from this little machine? Secret codes are the stuff of mystery and fantasy for any generation.

Bill was swept by nostalgia at the display of the colorful IBM 360 with its blue and orange disk drives.   He thought of the mainframe computers he used throughout his career from the early ‘60’s to 2004 at Hercules Powder Company, Control Data and Stanford University.  And he flashed on a scene from the good old days of mid-‘60’s, which he described to me.

“I’m standing in a large computer room, chilly because the machine needed air conditioning to keep from overheating.  Inside is a Control Data 3800 mainframe, a card reader, a printer and 10 tape decks, each with a reel mounted inside.  Several of us stand by expectantly.  Then the computer comes alive.  The mainframe D-register lights start blinking and the computer begins to perform.  Card reader starts ingesting cards.  Printer chugs out loops of paper in rhythm. Tape reels jiggle back and forth in time.  Carefully programmed, the computer is playing “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Not as spectacular but still fun: the twice-monthly museum demo of the musical abilities of Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1, built in 1959.  See details at the end of the column.


Much more lay ahead as we explored the alcoves:  the Cray-1Supercomputer, music and art, robotics, games, networking. But only about 2% of the museum holdings are on display.  The website presents photos and descriptions of most of the rest. The Computer History Museum claims to be the world’s largest collecting and exhibiting institution of its kind that explores the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society. more than you’ll see on the floor.

Even the most dedicated geek may feel overwhelmed and need a break.  The café in the lobby offers far more than orange soda.  You can get sandwiches, salads, coffee, and sweets and eat them in the fresh air on the patio. When you look down at the lobby floor, you’ll notice that the floor tiles are configured as a giant punched card.

We should have allowed about four hours for our tour and included a break.  But since the museum was going to close before we’d seen everything, I looked hard to find the first computer I ever used.  In Fall of 1984 I began a new job.  Sitting on my desk was the envy of everyone in my department:  the new Apple MacIntosh that had been announced so dramatically in a Superbowl commercial that January.  But I didn’t know what to do with it.  My boss, a graduate of MIT, couldn’t understand why I couldn’t teach myself.   Eventually I did conquer that little box and I still use a Mac.  How ironic to see this once revolutionary invention behind glass as a museum piece! 

“It looks like a microwave oven,” Gwynne observed.


One of the few hands-on sections is the games section.  I would like to see this section expanded with more terminals and information on how games are designed but not at the expense of other displays.  However, if you show up on the first or third Saturdays of the month at 3 p.m., you can play Spacewar! in the PDP-1 Room in the wing left of the lobby where there’s no admission charge.   Digital Equipment created Spacewar! in 1959 to show off its first computer, PDP-1, which did something revolutionary:  it focused on interaction with the user.  The game has two players, each in command of a spaceship, who each try to destroy the other against an astronomically correct star field. 

Also in the free section of the museum you’ll find an alcove on Computer Chess with online documents, images, artifacts, oral histories, moving images, and software related to the game from 1945 to 1997.  You’ll be right next to the Babbage Engine. This was 16-year-old Amri’s favorite computer.

comp_history_jul_2011_04.jpgIn the mid-1800’s Charles Babbage designed a “Difference Engine” to mechanically calculate and tabulate mathematical functions called polynomials.  An attached printer would produce out the results.  He persuaded the British government to fund the project.  Twelve years later, the machine was still unfinished.  Tired of waiting, the government withdrew its support.  But Babbage didn’t give up.  He designed a sleeker model (weighing only five tons) and called it “Difference Engine No. 2.   But he never saw it built.  That was done in the early 2000’s in London.  Former Microsoft guru Nathan Myhrvold ordered a duplicate and has lent it to the Computer History Museum until he can shore up the floor of his living room to support the five-ton machine.

I returned to the museum a few weeks later to watch Bill’s life-long co-worker give a presentation on the Babbage Engine and have an assistant actually make it work.  First he wheeled out a blackboard and described the kind of calculations it would do.  Then his assistant turned the crank and the five-ton machine ticked and clacked to life.  Pins in the back rippled in the shapes of DNA spirals.  Parts moved sideways and up and down.  It was a marvel to behold.  

John Hollar, the museum president, describes the ambitious purpose of “R|evolution,” The First 2,000 Years of Computing:  “It enables us to vastly expand our interpretation of computer evolution, its deep roots in Silicon Valley and beyond, its growth into a singular force in global life, and its ongoing social and historical impact.”

After touring the museum I was left with the feeling that the story and use of computers has far to go in directions we can’t imagine, just as it has in the past.  I wondered how my grandchildren’s kids will look at smart phones and I-Pads.


Computer History Museum
1401 North Shoreline Blvd.
Mountain View

Head east on  Highway 101 at the Shoreline exit.  

Hours: Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.  Admission: Adults - $15, Students/Seniors - $12, children under 12- free.

Go to

The Computer History Museum offers many online exhibits on a variety of topics related to the history of computing. Some online exhibits like Mastering the Game complement the physical exhibits you see when you visit in person. Others are available only through the Internet. The website also provides information about museum lectures.

Babbage Engine demos – These hour long presentations take place every Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m.

PDP-1 demos – Play Spacewars! with a partner.  Listen to the computer make its own music.  Go the lst or 3rd Saturday of the month at 3 p.m. for this one-hour presentation.  Free.

Docent-led tours – Docents are available for informal one-hour tours that focus on a theme such as communication as it revolves around five or six artifacts.   Call to confirm.

Joyce Kiefer is a regular columnist for BAFT. She enjoys taking her grandchildren on exciting trips so she can write about them.
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