Saturday, July 23, 2011

New Computer History Exhibit


For those that don't live or visit the Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum is an amazingly well put-together museum in Mountain View, cataloging the various stages and advances in computing in not only the most recent fifty years, but even earlier computing processes before digital computing.

Previously, their exhibit consisted primarily of one large warehouse room filled with miscellaneous computer equipment, roughly sorted in chronological order from slide rules, to WW2-era tube calculators, up to the end of the mainframe and beginning of minicomputer eras.  It was one of those rooms that lay-men would spend half an hour walking through with the guided tour, but us nerds would need to make the pilgrimage a second day because 10am-5pm just wasn't enough hours to drool over things like the innards of a Cray-1 and one of Google's first rack servers.

Last December (2010), the CHM closed the main archive exhibit and announced that they were working on a new and improved exhibit to be opened in January.  Of course, I had to go back to school in January, but my Dad and I were sitting around this morning, having little important to do, and decided that we should finally go experience this new exhibit.

Now don't get me wrong, it is a technically much better exhibit.  They actually don't use the original warehouse space at all, but used the other half of the building, to the right of the lobby.  They do an amazing good job of separating out the different ages and categories of computers and technologies, and interpreting them, giving the lay-men an idea of where what they're looking at fits in in the computing history timeline.

As someone who already pretty much knows that core memory is and what punch cards look like, it is a much less interesting museum.  They have maybe 15-20% of the raw hardware displayed that they previously had.  We walked through the exhibit for an hour and a half, getting lost three or four times in their Ikea-like maze of walls, and read all of the nice little interpretive signs under the iconic pieces of historical hardware, and... that was about it...

We had fun playing "count the number of pieces of hardware on display we can pull out of our junk boxes," but as someone coming already aware of the general progression of computing history, the entire experience ended up feeling very... cursory.  I walked out the end thinking "That was a nice introduction, now where is the other half of the new exhibit?"

They're doing  a very good job, the new exhibit is a much more appropriate lay-man's introduction, and at $12 the museum is still a steal, but as a serious hardware nerd, it's hard to not look back at what they had previously and be a little disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. Bummer! I was planning to check out the new exhibit the next time I visited the Bay Area. I'll probably still drop by, but I also enjoyed the old setup - there was so much to look at!
    The last time I visited the museum was during the Vintage Computer Festival, and I got to see things like Steve Russell demoing Spacewar! on the PDP-1. Really neat.

    ReplyDelete