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Life Before Watson: The Computer History Museum

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Friend of IT Alison Brick checks out the Computer History Museum‘s new signature exhibition that explores life before IBM’s Watson conquered Jeopardy!

I’ve always been confused when people say they want to visit Silicon Valley. Stopping by Google for a tour might be the dream, but driving around big buildings and being turned away by security is the reality. The Computer History Museum steps up to fill that void.

After debuting in 1984 as a collecting museum in Boston then moving to Mountain View, California in 2002, the museum eventually completed a $19 million expansion and made its transition into exhibiting. In mid-January it used its doubled-in-size exhibit space to launch “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing,” an exploration of the history of the computer from its early origins to today’s smart phone.

Revolution’s tone is set early, with sound effects that evolve from abacus clicks to typing taps to a modem whine. The exhibit starts at–where else?–sectors and slide rules, reminding us of the ‘compute’ in ‘computer.’ Retracing history, we hit the benchmarks–the military’s SAGE system, supercomputers, AutoCAD, and smart phones. A visitor looking for the person who invented the computer will be at a loss; we learn that credit goes to a lot of people for a lot of ideas. Even so, a large number of advancements came from Silicon Valley, and the museum gives nods to local companies like HP, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems.

Continue reading: The Computer History Museum

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As you’d expect from this type of museum, the displays are interactive with videos, hands-on exhibits, audio phones, magnifying lenses, and video games. Futuristic, fluorescent purple lighting occasionally pops up overhead through the black-and-white-themed network of exhibits.

There seem to be as many ‘best parts” of Revolution as there are employees to ask that very question, and the answers vary from the Antikythera mechanism to the Atanasoff-Berry Computer and the Cray-1 supercomputer.

Yet another favorite rang true for me–the gaming section. Like others visiting that day, I was delighted to reconnect with the tech toys that I grew up with: Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell, the Atari joystick, Merlin the Electronic Wizard game, and Infocom’s interactive fiction.

Although the ending is already known from the start, it takes the return to modern-day gadgets to grasp the scope of it all. Viewing the different eras of computer technology one after the next, you can appreciate the milestones made in so little time. But as the exhibit mentions, we’re only in the middle of the story, and you can’t help but wonder what will be on the market in the next year, never mind the next 2,000 years. The final video talks directly to future computer prodigies with this advice: “Take every opportunity.”  “Say yes.” “Study, build, experiment, fail, learn, build again.”

Computer History Museum
1401 N Shoreline Blvd.
Mountain View, CA 94043
Open Wed-Sun
Children 12 years and under, free

Visitors can get a reboot in the café with panini, sweets, or coffees, and stay for “Revolutionaries,” a lecture series that highlights experts in the computing field. Separate from the exhibit is the recreated 1849 Babbage Difference Engine No. 2, the first modern programmable computer.

If you can’t get to Mountain View, you’ll be able to view “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing,” online by the end of March.

Photos courtesy of the Computer History Museum

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