Sunday, May 25, 2008

Computer History Museum

Today I ventured outside The City to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Being a techie myself, I've wanted to visit for some time. It's located in an impressively large new building.

The big draw for the next year is the modern incarnation of Charles Babbage's legendary Difference Engine No. 2, built by the Science Museum of London. Nathan Myhrvold is responsible for the version on display, which is destined for his private collection. If you want to see this, time your visit for one of the live demonstrations. The machine calculates 7th order polynomials to 31 decimal places & is cranked by hand! It's massive, & there's definitely a certain romance to it as you watch columns of disks rise & fall, hear rhythmic ker-chunks, & become mesmerized by the carry-over wheels, which corkscrew up like rotating DNA molecules.

I took the tour of Visible Storage, which is a large warehouse space filled with all sorts of calculating machines, from abacuses & slide-rules to Crays & microcomputers. The layout is wonderfully informal & has lots of random surprises. I saw core memory for the 1st time. There's a rack of hilariously sagging motherboards from an early Google server. A tangle of wires used to program an early IBM plugboard gives a new meaning to the phrase "spaghetti code." The whole thing tells the story of the rapid replacement of old technologies by new ones. As the tour guide said, "Electronics constantly eats its young."

It also inspired a certain amount of nostalgia in me. I saw a teletype machine, which took me back to my 1st contact with computers, back when I was about 12. Visible Storage starts with a huge shelf full of microcomputers dating back to the 70's, & I was surprised by how many of these machines I had once used. & now they are museum pieces!

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