Once they were huge, the electronic equivalents of Zeus on Mount Olympus, cumbersome, cranky, and commanding constant care. More recently, they have become abstract and ethereal, shrinking into mote-size microprocessors and vanishing into wireless networks yet retaining the power to awe, chasten, and grant blessings. In their seventh decade, electronic computers have morphed again. They are not just tools but objects worthy of contemplation in their own right. And now they have their own museum, a secular temple, if you will, devoted to explaining how and why they came to be.
A day spent at the new Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, rekindles the wonder the big old machines must have inspired in their postwar creators. “People reach a point—it can be at age 16 or 60—when they realize there is more to life than the next new thing,” says John Toole, executive director of the museum. “It’s important to celebrate the past. Who were the pioneers? What did they create? That’s what we’re trying to show.”
The museum is in the right place—minutes from Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and Stanford University. The dot-com bust cheapened Silicon Valley commercial real estate, allowing the museum’s directors to buy this new building in October 2002. A 119,000-square-foot minimalist marvel once owned by Silicon Graphics, its geometric glass planes and soaring walls are a suitably reverent backdrop for the collection, which ranges from wooden abaci to liquid-nitrogen-cooled supercomputers.
The museum can reformat old prejudices and even prompt revelations. While computers did and still do foster pain and heartbreak (in the personal computer section, my blood pressure spiked as I glared at the double-floppy-disk-drive IBM PC that ate my files at random intervals in the late 1980s), the ingenuity behind them is inspiring. Toole enjoys leading computer-science graduate students through the displays and asking them when such breakthroughs as delay execution or compiler technology were invented. “Invariably they say, ‘In the last five years.’ They are really shocked when they see that some of these things have been around over 40 years.”
The Eisenhower-era geeks impress the youngsters in other ways as well. Back when every byte was precious, efficient programming mattered. “All you had was just a little bit of memory, so you had to be very clever,” Toole says. “There was some brilliant coding in these machines.” Conversely, he says, today’s programmers, awash in easy gigabytes, “can get a little sloppy,” making applications slower, buggier, and more vulnerable to hacking than they should be. To preserve venerable elegant software, the museum stores source code from punch cards, paper tape, and magnetic-tape reels and makes it available to researchers. “In this phase, the gallery experience is mostly hardware, but in future phases, we will have a software-themed gallery,” says museum spokeswoman Catriona Harris. Perhaps they’ll consider an entire exhibit devoted to the DOS-era imprecation “Bad command or file name.”