California museums tell the history of computing
Bit by bit, they gather and display gadgets from the computer revolution.
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Long before the Apple I, there was the Xerox Alto. By 1973, Xerox had invented most of the components that would become the personal computer and the Internet: an oversize screen complete with a desktop of icons and menus, a keyboard, and a no-nonsense three-button mouse – all connected to other Altos through an Ethernet connection.Skip to next paragraph
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It was widely used within the company's Palo Alto Research Center. But rather than making a commercial model available, Xerox chose to focus on copiers, ink, and toner. Not only did the Alto inspire Apple and other PCs, but, according to Damer, the Macintosh business plan was actually written on one.
Besides Apple computers of all stripes, including the Apple II and the first Macintosh – signed "Woz" by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak – the DigiBarn displays some of the company's commercial failures, including a 1983 Lisa, which preceded the Mac.
"This is the machine that changed the world," says Damer, tapping on an IBM PC 5150 from 1981. IBM was able to produce computers quickly and relatively inexpensively by taking components made by other companies and throwing them into one box.
All this shares space with three pigs – Theo, Mama, and Piglet – who can be heard snuffling in their pen outside. Damer is a charming guide – ethnographer as much as collector. He's fascinated by the stories of the people behind the bytes and delights in sharing them. Many pieces in his collection still function, and he encourages people to turn them on.
Preserving the cutting edge
By contrast, the Computer History Museum, 30 miles north, is a much vaster and more comprehensive collection. Here, a sign reads: "Thank you for not touching the artifacts."
The museum (also free and open most afternoons) has a complex history that began outside Boston in 1979. In 2002, it moved to its new space, the former home of Silicon Graphics – itself an artifact of the computer age.
Curator Alex Bochannek dons white gloves for a tour of the restoration lab, where volunteers have reassembled an IBM 1401 system – one of those early, sprawling series of machines that occupy an entire room.
"Visible Storage," the museum's main exhibit, spreads throughout a cavernous space like a warehouse. It holds more than 600 items – only a portion of the museum's collection. A comprehensive computer timeline is being assembled to be unveiled in 2009. But for now, the Babbage Engine is the museum's star.
"Silicon Valley, and the technology industry, tends to be a community that drives with no rearview mirror," says Nathan Myhrvold, a former CTO of Microsoft who funded the Engine's construction. "As a result it's very rare to see people ... conserve or honor or display old computers."
A Silicon Valley roadtrip
The computer may not seem like the most aesthetic of museum relics. But for technology lovers and neophytes alike, it offers a fascinating and nostalgic window onto contemporary culture. These museums and sites, dedicated to technology in all forms, are within driving distance of each other. Together they’d make for a nice weekend of technology.
The Computer History Museum
Mountain View, Calif.
Microcomputers, supercomputers, and everything in between. The vast and comprehensive collection includes a 600-piece permanent display and rotating special exhibits.
Open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. Admission is free.
The DigiBarn Computer Museum
In the Santa Cruz Mountains
The contents of this private barn track the evolution of the personal computer. With pigs outside and computers inside, the quirky contrast is worth the effort of an appointment and the strikingly winding mountain drive.
Tours are free, but only by appointments made through its website.
San Francisco, Calif.
Hundreds of interactive exhibits blend science, art, and technology. Dedicated to both entertaining and educating visitors, the museum hosts numerous events, including the upcoming CSI: Toys, where kids use forensic science to help solve mysteries.
Open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $14, with special deals for students and children.
The Intel Museum
Santa Clara, Calif.
Nestled in Intel’s headquarters, the museum guides you through the history of the company and computer innovation. Interactive displays highlight the science and labor that go into making PCs.
Monday through Saturday. Admission is free.
The HP Garage
Palo Alto, Calif.
Before the printers and the laptops, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard tinkered in a garage behind 367 Addison Avenue. Now a California Historic Landmark, the garage was renovated in 2005 and bears a plaque that declares it “The Birthplace of ‘Silicon Valley.’ ”
Visitors cannot wander the property, but the garage can be seen from the road.