The guest book at the nondescript pair of warehouses just across the street from the monumental blimp hangar at NASA's Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif., looks like a Who's Who of the computer industry. There's Gene Amdahl, who designed two generations of mainframes at IBM Corp. and another two at his own companies; C. Gordon Bell, who built the minicomputers that powered Digital Equipment Corp.; and Donald Knuth, whose algorithms have set standards in computer science for 40 years.
These and the other pioneers who prowl Moffett come to visit their brainchildren—or to find a home for them. "Anyone who's anyone in the computer industry and is getting on in years" has come to reminisce or to donate, says curator Mike Williams.
Known as the Computer History Museum, the collection here spans a "unique period" in the history of technology, says veteran computer architect and museum board member John Mashey. Fifty years ago, there were essentially no computers; now they are everywhere and becoming just about invisible. Now is the time to preserve the heritage of modern PCs as well, both the artifacts themselves and the detailed information about their development and workings, while so many of the people who created the computer revolution are still available.
Thousands of people around the world maintain collections of old computers—anything from the half-dozen old PCs any given hacker hasn't cleared out of the bedroom to the half-dozen or so Crays in the private museum built in Wisconsin by United Parcel Service pilot and computer aficionado James Curry. There are even quirky institutions like the Digibarn, north of Santa Cruz, Calif., where a veteran PC programmer is turning a spur-of-the-moment hobby into a mecca for aging computer buffs to relive past glories [see "Gigabits in the Woods"].
But the museum at Moffett contains perhaps the most complete collection of groundbreaking hardware and software in the world—from the Hollerith punch-card tabulating machine that rescued the 1890 U.S. census to the LINC laboratory minicomputer to a prototype of the Palm Pilot PDA and an early copy of IBM's gigabyte credit-card-sized disk drive.
Preserving all these artifacts is quite an achievement in a field where last year's top-secret supercomputer is next year's scrap. Just inside the door, Williams points out the JOHNNIAC, which was rescued from the garbage dump not once, but twice. This sole survivor of the original generation of machines designed by computer pioneer John von Neumann was built at Rand Corp. and then donated to a local museum when its useful life ended.
A few years after that, Williams recounts, the local museum rethought its needs for exhibit space, and the machine's builders came upon their creation in the parking lot, sawed up into sections for pickup by a scrap dealer.
Among the first to recognize the importance of preserving past computers for study was Gwen Bell, former president of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computer History Museum's founding president. Her first exhibit, of machines that were collected by her husband IEEE Fellow C. Gordon Bell, started out in a glassed-in former coat closet in the mill building at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in Maynard, Mass. The collection later filled a cavernous DEC lobby and eventually formed the nucleus of the Computer Museum in Boston.
In the 1990s, as this museum shifted its focus to public education, much of its collection was transferred to the warehouses at Moffett. When in 1999 it merged with the Museum of Science, Boston, what was left of its historical collection also went west into the Moffett buildings. These artifacts all now make their home at the Computer History Museum.