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.
``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.
In other galleries reside such notables as Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-8, a pioneer among mini-computers; the Apollo Guidance Computer, the machine that aided astronauts on their moon-landing missions; and a chunk from the UNIVAC I, the first commercially produced computer.
Next to the UNIVAC is a whimsical videotape from election night 1952. CBS's Charles Collingwood is trying to pursuade a UNIVAC to make a prediction about who would next be president. A bit later the computer said that Eisenhower would win by a landslide.
Museum director Gwen Bell sees the museum as an authority on the technology of computers, pulling together the diverse elements of an industry that is changing quickly and sorting out its history.
In the future, Dr. Bell expects there to be exhibitions that show that computers ``are not just rooted in the US. . . . To show how this is an international technology [that permits communication between different regions of the world] which wouldn't have been realized before computers.'' She offers computer programs that translate languages as an example.
Over 90 companies and 150 individuals have donated money, equipment, technical expertise, or a combination of the three. Contributions have come from as far afield as Canada, Britain, and Japan.
The catalyst for a computer museum was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology plan to junk a computer called the Whirlwind. Built by MIT in 1945 for the US Navy, it was the first machine to be able to store large quantities of information inexpensively and reliably.
Two computer company presidents -- Robert Everett of MITRE Corporation and Kenneth Olsen of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), had worked on the early Whirlwind and they resolved to save it. The computer was brought to DEC headquarters in Marlboro, Mass., to form the core of a museum that opened in 1979.
The museum became independent of DEC in 1982 and late last year -- in greatly expanded form -- moved to Boston. Part of the Whirlwind is on display at the new location.
``Already,'' according to Dr. Strimpel, ``[we have] the best collection of post-1950 computers of any institution in the world.''
The museum now has all the trappings of a big institution. A lecture series features the stars of the computer industry telling how it all happened -- and what it all means for today. A quarterly, the Computer Museum Report, is published. Archives are being developed to include literature as well as computer software. And then there's the Computer Museum Store -- the place to go for designer computer paper, books with titles like ``The Computer Cookbook,'' and chocolate chips (small boxes of dark chocolate, shaped like computer chips of course, for a high-tech price.)
The Computer Museum is certain to grow in international recognition and become even more canny about its displays. About 25 percent of its intended gallery space has yet to be used. A superb institution has taken its place among this city's other fine museums.