Sunday, February 06, 2011

Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing

For years, the Computer History Museum (CHM) has a open storage area where they put their collection of old computers, but without any interpretation except for docent led tours. I had no problem wandering through this treasure trove because I knew a lot about what they had on show, from slide rules and abacuses to the Control Data 6600 and the Cray machines. Even then, a docent could help by pointing out features that I would miss, such as the ash tray on each workstation of the Sage early warning computer system.

Now the CHM has opened their "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing" exhibition, and I recommend a visit. They still have all the interesting computer hardware as they had in the visible storage area, however it is placed in a larger space and there is all kind of interpretive help from explanation of the exhibits to video clips that you can browse. In my visit, I saw a lot of new things and learned much.

For example, Napier's Bones are an old time calculation aid that turns long multiplication into addition. The Napier's Bones exhibit explains how they work and allows you to do calculations using a set. The exhibit on computers and rocketry has the guidance computer for a large missile arrayed in a circle around the inside of the missile skin leaving an ominously empty space in the middle for the payload. In the semiconductor area they had examples of silicon wafers that ranged from the size of a small coin from the early days to a current wafer that is the size of a large dinner plate. There is also an interesting video discussion of the marketing of the early microprocessors like the 8086, the Z8000, the M68000 and the absolute importance of landing the design win for the IBM PC that led to the current era where Intel is biggest and most profitable chip maker. These are just a sample of the many fascinating exhibits there.

I spent over 2 hours in the exhibition and only managed to get through half of it. I am a long time member of the museum and can go back any time, so this is a warning to non-members to allow enough time for their visit.

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