A museum that demystifies the computer. Boston's superb collection of artifacts and `interacting' exhibits
How do you create a museum out of a bunch of used computers? Boston's newest institution -- the Computer Museum -- has answered this with a superb collection of artifacts mixed with ``interacting'' exhibits of today's technology. The museum's home is half of a renovated 19th-century warehouse on the waterfront, not too far from the Massachusetts high-tech crescent known as Route 128. It also has the distinction, say museum officials, of being the only one of its kind in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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``There is a great need to demystify and make [computers more] accessible,'' remarks Oliver Strimpel, the museum's associate director and curator and former curator for mathematics and computing at the Science Museum in London.
And this museum helps meet that need by providing a fun environment for creative ``interfacing'' with computers. ``There's one great strong point with computers and that is that you can play with them,'' says Dr. Strimpel.
When Strimpel talks about ``playing'' with computers he's referring to the machines throughout the museum that allow visitors to create art, design cars, or manipulate various images. Some help explain their own technology.
As well, there are the displays of the older computers, including relics from the 1950s that had tremendous aisles of vacuum tubes and metal gadgetry for functions that today can be squeezed into machines that fit neatly on a desk, thanks in large part to tiny silicon chips.
On a recent winter day the museum was busy with youngsters unloaded from several battleship-sized school buses. They buzzed around chunks of a computer called the AN/FSQ-7. More familiarly known as the Q-7, from 1958 to 1983 it was part of the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system.
Some students taken seats in the SAGE ``Blue Room,'' a re-creation of the air defense centers -- there were 24 of them across North America -- linked to Q-7s. Consoles illustrated how aircraft were tracked.
It was, however, the small battalion of personal computers in one gallery, programmed to demonstrate a wide range of capabilities, that most fully engaged this crowd of young people. The room was dominated by the automated voice of one computer that phonetically repeats sentences typed on its keyboard -- and the bubbling voices of youngsters who already seemed quite familiar with the keyboards and terminals.
Dr. Strimpel's baby -- the gallery he's concentrated his efforts on -- features image processing and computer graphics. People to whom these words mean as little as Sanskrit will begin to find understanding here.
At an image-processing ``station'' this visitor took a video snapshot of himself. Several brightly colored knobs permitted the image to be manipulated -- simplifying detail, increasing or decreasing shades of gray. The results weren't always flattering.
Next station: a personal computer that simulates being an aircraft pilot. Repeated flights indicated a ground-based career would be advantageous.
In a screening room, several remarkable examples of computer animation are shown -- including an astonishingly lifelike one from Lucasfilm Ltd. -- the people behind the ``Star Wars'' trilogy. This viewer will take ``Bugs Bunny,'' though, until they come up with more interesting story lines.