MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Not everyone’s pulse will quicken with a glimpse of a 1956 I.B.M. Ramac actuator and disk stack. For many, too, the 1959 Telefunken RAT 700/2 analog computer will just look like a cross between an antediluvian switchboard and the control panel for a German submarine. And while those of us of a certain age who are technically inclined might recall elegant, finely made slide rules with fondness, can even a hint of nostalgia be summoned for the glowing five-inch screen of a barely luggable, suitcase-size 1981 Osborne computer?
These artifacts are all on display here with more than 1,000 others in the Computer History Museum, billed as “the world’s largest museum for the preservation and presentation of the computer revolution and its impact.” And however specialized or esoteric the artifacts, they take on new interest in this institution because of the kind of history it tells and the place it tells it.
Housed in the 120,000-square-foot former headquarters of Silicon Graphics, near Google’s home and just off the freeway running through Silicon Valley, this museum is partly a tribute to a hometown industry, like a coal museum in Newcastle, England, perhaps. Its donors, corporate and private, are partly its subjects. Its artifacts reflect businesses, not just technologies. And while the museum is appealingly designed to lure a wide range of visitors, there are times it reflects the perspective of an insider, paying closer attention to the trees than the forest. But the trees are so plentiful, and the offerings have such a wide variety that, at a certain point, the visitor can begin to feel like an insider as well.
The institution was introduced to the public in 1984 in a far different setting, sharing space with the Children’s Museum in Boston. The computer museum’s growing collection was moved to Silicon Valley in 1999, and the current building was acquired in 2002. But in 2011 the institution finally came into its own with a $19 million renovation and the opening of a new 25,000-square-foot permanent exhibition, “Revolution: The First 2,000 Years of Computing.”
Donations of papers and artifacts have added to the 75,000-object collection here, and the museum’s ambitions have grown; its central displays are supplemented with smaller, changing shows; tributes to industry pioneers; and educational programs.
The insider aspect often ends up becoming a strength. Who else but an insider can clearly see the epic dimensions of the subject, its ancient roots and its knotty intertwining of successes and failures? The history of computing chronicles great innovations quickly turning into primitive artifacts. And as seen from the inside, the pace is frantic.
From the mid-20th century, we are presented with landmarks: Univac and Eniac; the idea of programming; the development of digital memory. We also see the detritus left behind and carefully preserved: vacuum tube circuits, ganglions of twisted wire, defunct corporate logos and the cabinetry of behemoths gone by.
So while there are flaws here, the history is compelling, particularly since the advances in our time are so knit into daily life that they are almost invisible. Old technologies never are.
The opening galleries set the stage by showing just how important calculation machines have been throughout recorded history. Much attention is devoted to the abacus, “perhaps the oldest continuously used calculating tool aside from fingers.” There is a tutorial on how to use one, and we learn of an occasion, in 1946 Japan, when an American Army private, expert with new electric calculators, was pitted against a virtuosic Japanese postal worker with an abacus. In four out of five rounds, the abacus won.
The calculating machines on display go back to an image of the “Stepped Reckoner,” a four-function calculator invented by Leibniz in the late 17th century that influenced calculator designs for almost 300 years. The ultimate mechanical calculator here is in the lobby space: a working version of a “differential engine” invented by Charles Babbage over 150 years ago. It’s a 5-ton, 8,000-piece, 11-foot-long machine that can calculate complicated numerical expressions and print them out. Babbage himself never built one, leaving only the blueprints; the execution, undertaken for the London Science Museum, took almost two decades and was completed in 2000. (The 2008 machine here is a commissioned replica.)
In the historical exhibition, we are led from early mechanical calculators to an advance that shaped computing for decades but relied on mundane material: paper cards with holes punched in them. That was the idea of Herman Hollerith, who won a competition to work with the United States Census Bureau analyzing data for the 1890 Census. Holes were punched on more than 60 million cards corresponding to people’s personal characteristics. The data could be readily organized, based on the holes.
This may sound dismayingly low-tech, and Hollerith got the idea from something even lower-tech: the punched cards that guided Jacquard looms at the turn of the 19th century to create patterns in cloth. Technological advances are often based on older, simple ideas applied in startling ways.
We tend to lose that practical, grounded sense as the history proceeds. Partly this is because of the material’s difficulty. But sometimes much deciphering is needed to discern an innovation’s importance. Differences between analog and digital computers are too cursorily explained. Programming advances also get much shorter shrift than breakthroughs in hardware, perhaps because they are more difficult to illustrate.
At any rate, some of the most effective displays are connected directly to historical events. World War II, which was probably responsible for a greater expansion of technological possibilities than any war in history, led to advances in computing for at least two purposes: code breaking and weapons-trajectory calculations. The insights transformed postwar computation.
The museum’s historical survey leads us through patent quarrels over the invention of the electronic computer, the evolution of data storage, the development of microprocessors, the growing sophistication of computer graphics.
We see sections of the renowned handmade supercomputers designed by Seymour Cray (whose Cray-1 was the world’s fastest computer from 1976 to 1982). We see the beginnings of computerized consumer products, including a 1969 Honeywell minicomputer sold as a “Kitchen Computer” by Neiman Marcus for $10,600, presumably to help its wealthiest customers with recipes that their cooks couldn’t handle. (The catalog reads: “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute.”) There are also surveys of video games, portable computing, networking and the development of the Internet.
As the material gets closer to us, the tone becomes a little more uncertain. What is focused on and why? Many of these late galleries already have a dated feel, with too much detail about some things (the dot-com boom and bust), not enough about others (the tablet and smartphone supplanting the PC). So fast have the transformations been in the last 15 years that the Justice Department’s antitrust suit against Microsoft now seems as quaint as an antitrust suit it once brought against I.B.M. (which it dropped as being “without merit” in 1982).
A broader perspective might also have been illuminating, exploring in more detail the technology’s interactions with science fiction; popular imagery of computers; utopian fantasies about the Internet; or transformations in political culture.
But it is partly the nature of the subject that complaints, as well as enthusiasms, will vary widely and change over time. There is so much here that you cannot help following one strand and wishing it would go further, or following another and thinking of it as a dead end. The museum’s framework also provides much room for innovation and alteration. It is, after all, surveying a realm whose only static aspect is its past. I’ll be returning for version 2.0.