Computer History Museum: Step Into the Past, Present and Future.
Recently, I had an opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Computer History Museum in Sunnyvale, California and the visit was a bit like a trip in a time machine. As I moved from room to room, I felt like I was stepping out of Doctor Who’s police box or Bill and Ted’s telephone booth (remember those?) or Doc Brown’s DeLorean.
Google Driverless Car
I started with the future (arguably the present) at the self-driving car exhibit. The main attraction was Google’s second generation (2012) driverless car equipped with a Laser Illuminated Detection and Ranging system (LIDAR) that lights up everything around it for identification. I’ve included an image of what the car sees (photo on the right). Additionally, for the image highlighting this article, you’ll see a more raw image of the exhibition hall.
The technology is impressive and the exhibition includes an excellent explanation of the goals and techniques involved. While the driverless car has proven itself in principle and in ideal conditions (sunny California versus rainy or snowy conditions), there are still some challenges ahead. For example, how does a driverless car follow the instructions of a construction worker directing traffic or not swerve widely when it encounters tumbleweeds blowing across a freeway in central California or Arizona. Even as we speak, Google is trialing their new prototype so I suspect this will be worked out over time. We’ll all just have to wait.
Babbage Difference Engine
Walk 20 feet from the self-driving car and you’ll travel 170 years into the past. Here I found Charles Babbage’s difference engine No 2 and printer – yes, printer. Designed in 1847, this machine would calculate polynomial tables and then create printing plates so the published mathematical tables would be error-free. Before calculators and computers, mathematical tables were published with specialized calculations for different types of application. While looking up the calculations was always faster than performing the manual calculations, the books often contained errors from miscalculations or typesetting errors. Babbage’s difference machine addressed both of these issues. Unfortunately, he only built a prototype and a full scale model wasn’t made until 2001 – the 200th anniversary of his birth. There are only two of these machines in the world and almost everyday at this museum, you too can take in the sounds, smells and motion of this mechanical marvel.
First 2000 Years of Computing
The highlight of the museum is their permanent exhibit – “the First 2000 Years of Computing.” Stepping into the first exhibit takes you back to the very first calculators (abacus, slide rules) and leads you through each successive breakthrough – adding machines, punch cards, analog computers, semi-conductors, different memory and storage schemes, programming languages, AI, robotics, computer graphics, gaming, PCs, super computers, military applications and of course, the Internet and mobile devices – not necessarily in that order. The exhibit is comprehensive and simply fascinating.
Test Your Computer History Knowledge – Matching Quiz
Here are a few memorable highlights I ran into during my visit. To make this interesting, I’ve organized this as a matching quiz so match the right label to the right picture. Answers can be found at the end of the blog, so don’t scroll too far.
Matching Quiz Descriptions
- 1969 Kitchen Computer by Neiman-Marcus/Honeywell for storing recipes and household programming
- WWII Norden bombsite for calculating bomb trajectories
- 1982 Gemini cardiac pacemaker
- Part of the 1958 SAGE Console (part of NORAD ground defense)
- WWII Enigma cipher machine (used by Germany and deciphered by Turing)
- 1801 Jacquard loom cards for controlling textile manufacturing
- 1987 Symbolics Lisp Machine for AI research and Object Oriented Programming (Flavors)
- 1950’s IBM 83 punch card sorter
- 1959 DEC PDP-1 (world’s first video game – Spacewar!)
- Cray-1 Supercomputer
- Babbage Difference Machine
- LIDAR laser scan (sits on the driverless vehicle)
- 1966 Honeywell Animals
Matching Quiz Images
If you’re a twenty-something or sixty-something developer, or somewhere in between, you’ll find this museum absolutely fascinating. For many, you’ll experience flashbacks from days gone by. For others, you’ll gain a better appreciation of just how far we’ve come. Either way, you’ll come away entertained, a little more educated and definitely, impressed.
Matching Quiz Answers
Some interesting tidbits …
4. If you look really carefully on the SAGE console, you’ll see a built-in ashtray on the lower left hand side.
6. Pendleton Woolen Mills still uses similar technology to make their blankets. A couple of years ago, I saw very similar cards still in use at their factory in Pendleton, Oregon.
7. The Symbolics Lisp Machines were a blast to program. With a high-resolution display and a 3 button mouse in the mid-80’s, they were ahead of their time. I still recall modifying a program while it was running and without restarting the program, I could see the execution change immediately. It also had a full object-oriented programming language and windowing system when most people didn’t know how to spell OO.
8. The museum has a complete mainframe room set up with IBM mainframes, tape reels and card punch/sorting machines. I can almost feel the chill of the air-conditioned room and the noise of all the printers and tape reels.
13. Ok, this was an easy match but you have to admit the dog is really cute. There were several animals commissioned by Honeywell to promote their computers. They were all made of electronics components (do you see the resistors and capacitors?).