It’s been called the geek’s Valhalla.
The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, the world’s largest collection of computing artifacts, boasts such innovations as ENIAC, the electronic whiz; the speedy Cray-1 supercomputer; the portable but heavy Osborne; the legendary Apple I personal computer; and Enigma, the historically significant World War II machine used to encrypt Axis troop movements.
But believe us when we say that you don’t have to be a geek’s geek to enjoy this museum. There’s a whole display on a teapot (the legendary curved 3-D model kick-started the world of CGI). And a shrine to Pac-Man.
We tapped into the boundless enthusiasm of senior curator Dag Spicer, a former hardware engineer and technical writer whose car license plate reads “TURING1” — a nod to the brilliant mathematician who cracked the Enigma code — for his guide to the highlights. When the museum reopens to the public early this year, you’ll be ready.
Here’s an edited version (aka a compressed file) of our conversations:
Q. What is the oldest relic in the museum?
A. The oldest object in the collection is a set of Napier’s Bones, a pre-computing artifact from about 1700. It is a beautiful set of wooden rods, with multiplication tables delicately etched on them. Using the rods, multiplication can then be reduced to addition, and division to subtraction.
Q. Which exhibit prompts the techies’ jaws to drop? And what’s the jaw-dropper for non-techies?
A. There is some overlap in astonishment factor between techies and non-techies. For example, RAMAC — the world’s first disk drive — holds about 3.75 MB of data and is the size of a refrigerator, which nearly everyone finds very surprising.
For the technically inclined, I think seeing an original Seymour Cray design notebook for the Cray-1 supercomputer is pretty interesting, as is the visually stunning Cray-1 itself, which sits right beside it. The Cray-1 was the fastest computer in the world for over five years.
Q. What don’t we know about the Nazis’ Enigma and the code-breakers?
A. German military Enigma operators used codes that were changed at varying intervals — as World War II went on, there were frequently multiple code changes per day. The Enigma method was largely broken by three Polish codebreakers in the 1920s. The British built on their work and automated it at scale to enable useful, urgent, large-scale enemy code-breaking.
Enigma machines are still very much in circulation, albeit as collector’s items. Since their circuitry is very simple, most still work or can be made to work. They are easy to operate, reliable and rugged — as would be expected of a technology for military use.
Fun fact: Occasionally, contests are held to decode original Enigma messages. A vintage message is sent out over the air via Morse code, and whoever can decode it first wins!
Q. Do you seriously have an important piece of computer history that came from a Sunnyvale bar, of all places?
A. We do! It’s the one-of-a-kind 1972 Pong video game prototype that was first installed at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale. Two weeks after installing it, Pong engineer Al Alcorn was asked to check on the machine as it appeared to be broken. Instead of being broken, Pong’s coin box was actually full of quarters, showing that there was a healthy market for video games. The company Alcorn worked for, Atari, would lead a video game revolution.
Q. Did the museum inherit anything from the now-defunct Fry’s Electronics?
A. We are in discussion with them now, actually. They were a key part of Silicon Valley history. We hope we can preserve some of their materials so future generations can understand what a unique business and cultural institution they were.
Q. Geeks may think paper is passé, but you have quite a collection of documents. What’s one of the cool pieces of ephemera?
A. One of my favorites is the punched card holiday wreath made in the 1960s. IBM defined the “IBM Card” in 1928 for its mechanical office equipment. Cards were made by the billions until rendered obsolete by online input methods in the mid-1970s.
Speaking of paper, we also have one of the largest paper archives in the history of computing in the world, with nearly one linear mile of often rare and unique documents from leading thinkers and pioneers in computing. During COVID, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of research requests and people accessing our archives. So computer history marches on, in spite of things.
Details: When the museum reopens, find details on workshops, events, hours and admission at https://computerhistory.org. 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View.