A Revolution At the Computer History Museum

On Thursday, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., opens up what its president, John Hollar, calls “a technological wonderland” in the form of a new permanent exhibit, “Revolution: the first 2000 Years of Computing.” Since its inception in 1996, the museum has been, says Al Alcorn, cofounder of Atari and creator of the arcade game Pong, “kind of a private club, where old guys get together to reminisce.”

The museum was always open to the public, but in the past, says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, “you could come in this building and see a lot of incredible equipment—after reading the books and studying it on your own.”

But now, after a two-year, $19 million renovation, the private club feeling is gone, and the museum is understandable as well as accessible to the non-expert, to people who didn’t live through the past decades of computing history but want to know where all the gizmos in their lives today originated.

And indeed, the new design, with curving pathways that gently guide the visitor through 19 galleries, is a far cry from the Computer History Museum of the past that, in my recollection, was all hard edges and dead ends. Each of today’s 19 galleries traces a different aspect of computing chronologically—there’s calculating, starting with the abacus; analog computing; storage and memory; the silicon chip; robotics; graphics; and more.

Today, at a sneak preview for the media (the renovated museum opens to the public Thursday), many of the visits added a touch of living history; besides Alcorn and Wozniak, Don Knuth, author of the Art of Computer Programming, chatted about the history of software; Steve Russell played SpaceWar, the game he developed on the PDP-1 that’s widely considered to be the first computer game ever; and others tended their bits of computing history. (See them, and other scenes from the sneak preview, in the slide show below.)

The “Revolution” exhibit will open to the public Thursday, 13 January. Regular museum hours are Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $15.00, children 12 and under are free.

Related Stories

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement
Advertisement