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The Computer History Museum (CHM) is on Shoreline Boulevard in Mountain View in one of the buildings that used to make up the SGI campus back when they were the major force in graphics. Most of the rest of the buildings are now part of the Googleplex.
I first came across it when I interviewed with Gordon Bell, who was chairman of the board of Ambit. I had to go to his house on a Sunday afternoon and the interview mostly consisted of a couple of hours of reminiscence about the history of computer science. He had been the main architect of many of Digital Equipment Corporation's (DEC) computers and was VP Engineering during its heyday. Like so many industries, nobody notices that maybe the early artifacts will one day become important—"It's just an old hobbyist Apple-1, who would ever care about that?" The "museum" started as a coat closet at DEC. It moved to one of DEC's lobbies, and officially became the Digital Computer History Museum (Digital here being the name of the company, not that they spurned analog computers).
Eventually those early computers formed the kernel of what became the The Computer Museum (TCM) in Boston. The founders were Gordon Bell and his wife Gwen. They moved to California, and moved the museum, too. At the time of my interview, the "museum" was an unused furniture store at Moffat Field where the collection was housed. I think you had to have an appointment to go there, unless there was a special event on. It got renamed the Computer History Museum (CHM).
There were apparently negotiations with the Smithsonian, but these foundered on the lack of a shared vision. As Gordon put it, explaining why a dedicated museum was essential:
The next phase was to get a permanent building to house the collection and make it more accessible to the public. The original plan was to construct a new building on land leased from Moffat Field. The timing had been very good, and when they started fundraising for the museum it was during the first internet bubble and they hadn't had too much difficulty in raising $50M for such important artifacts. But negotiating a lease with NASA turned out to be a lot more than one small step for man. Then the internet bubble burst. But for CHM it was perfect, since they could now buy distressed real estate at a knock-down price, and they acquired the building at Shoreline and 101 for $25M.
There was a soft opening of the museum for years, with some artifacts on view, and very limited opening times. The full opening was on October 1, 2011. This accomplished the original 1995 vision that they had started with. Except that they blew away everything by more than a factor of two. At the opening, CHM had:
Over 35,000 physical objects, 5,000+ linear feet of pages, 15,000, photos, 5,500 videos including a number of Pioneer Lectures, 400+ oral history transcripts, and 20,000 software objects in a variety of formats.
The current museum website is less detailed and just lists:
More than 100,000 items including hardware, ephemera, photographs, moving images, documents, and software artifacts.
If you want to read more about the early history of CHM, it is all in Microsoft Technical Report MSR-TR-2011-44 Out of the Closet: The Early Years of The Computer [X] Museums. (Gordon moved to Microsoft Research, hence the slightly unexpected publisher). The [X] is either "History" or "" (nothing) depending on how far back you go.
Gordon (who wrote the technical report) lists the milestones of the museum as if it were a startup company:
Here are some of the things that you can see at CHM. I will talk about some of the specific computers, the ones that figured in my early career, later in the summer.
Memory technology was a challenge before semiconductor memories could be built reliably. The early computers used mercury delay lines, capturing the bits in sound waves still in transit through tubes filled with mercury, or with cathode ray tubes where the phosporescence would last for a time and could be detected and re-written. The workhorse until the late 1970s was core memory, increasingly small ferrite toruses (doughnuts) with wires threaded through to write and read the magnetic field captured in the ferrite.
RAMAC disk drives, one of he earliest disk drives. These were designed and built in San Jose at Cottle Road, where there is actually a Ramac Park, surely the only park in the world to be named after a disk drive.
An Apple I. I assume Woz's signature on the wooden case is genuine. Initially Jobs and Woz sold just the board (for $40) and the purchaser had to add the components. Then they sold fully assembled boards for $666.66 (a 1/3 markup on the $500 cost of the components). Then came the Apple II and the rest is history.
One of Google's original server racks, from about 1999, with servers below and routers on top.
The CHM website has information on when it is open (currently Wednesday to Sunday). There is plenty of parking, including about a dozen EV charging stations, although this being Silicon Valley, whenever there is a major event using the museum they are always all occupied with a line of Teslas waiting for one to free up.
While at CHM you can take your photo, and photoshop will add a person of your choice. Here I am with my pal, Englishman Alan Turing. Which is a perfect segue into next Friday's post, on artifacts in Britain, including some of the early computers that he worked on.
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