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.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.