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I read somewhere that the largest computer museum in the world is the Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum in Paderborn, which is in central Germany, a longish distance from anywhere I was likely to be. But after CDNLive EMEA, I visited imec in Belgium (see my post If It's Tuesday It Must Be Belgium. My First Visit to imec), but since I then had a spare day, I decided to get the train there. If it's Wednesday, it must be Paderborn.
Nixdorf is probably not a name that is well-known in the US. In the early years of computers, most big European countries encouraged domestic computer companies, essentially ending up with a national champion in much the same way that they still do today with airlines. These grew up wherever they were, and often in slightly off-the-beaten-track locations.
In Britain, the British Tabulating Company became International Computers & Tabulators (ICT), then International Computers Limited (ICL), and then...Fujitsu. Well, it's from an island where they drive on the left...is that close enough to being British? They were based at Putney in West London. In the unlikely event you like to watch "The Boat Race" (that's its official name) between Oxford and Cambridge Universities each year, that's where it starts.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Olivetti decided to get into computers, since they were big in office equipment as the biggest manufacturer of typewriters. They were in Ivrea, a small town outside Turin. In fact, they had a partnership with VLSI Technology and we had several people based there full-time. I visited a couple of times, staying in the company-owned hotel that was shaped like a typewriter. Another EDA connection is that one of the key managers was Lucio Lanza. You can read more about Ivrea, Olivetti, and Lucio in my post How Lucio Went from Italy to EDA via Intel.
In France, it was Bull (or Groupe Bull) based in the wonderfully named Les-Clayes-sous-Bois in the suburbs west of Paris. They were a customer of VLSI, too, so I have been to my share of visits to "Les Clayes". Although they were never that commercially successful, they were doing very advanced mainframe designs.
In Germany, it was Nixdorf that became the leader in small- and medium-sized computers for business. The company was started in 1952 by Heinz Nixdorf. Germany's post-war success at that time was driven by its mitteldstand, the medium-sized companies of which there were many. So they were a perfect market for Nixdorf: German, too big for doing everything by hand, too small to need an expensive IBM mainframe.
All these companies had a similar trajectory. Government departments and institutions that were under government control or influence were "encouraged" to buy the local kit. However, there was very little exported to other countries, and so the lack of competition meant that they were generally not run aggressively. The phrase "good enough for government work" extends to that sort of semi-protected industry. It was very different to the approach taken by, say, Korea in automobiles, where success was based on being globally competitive and not on having a captive domestic market. If you coddle your domestic industries until they are internationally competitive, they never will be. Compare Korea and Japan in automobiles to Malaysia—have you seen any Protons or Peroduas on the road in your country recently? From their point of view, why do the hard thing and have to compete with Toyota and Hyundai overseas, when due to tariffs and quotas, it is not necessary at home.
Developing and building computers, especially once microprocessors started to be part of the equation, is best done at scale to amortize the design cost over a lot of manufacturing. But each country on its own was not large enough, and there were no clear winners for the Europeans all to align behind (as happened, for example, in aerospace with Airbus). For a time, even in Europe, Digital's VAX machines seemed to be the winner for mid-size computers, along with Sun workstations. I asked someone in Bull once why he thought there was no European equivalent to Sun Microsystems. He told me that the moment it looked like a private sector company was being successful, the government would have poured money into Bull or another French semi-public company to enter the market. They would have been just successful enough to kill the nascent private company, but without actually being successful.
Then the PC came along. In true Innovator's Dilemma style, this was a toy device at first, no contender as a replacement for Bull or Nixdorf, or Digital or Sun for that matter. But Moore's Law was in full swing and performance of microprocessors was improving at 45% per year. Soon, the PC ate everything and the story did not end well for any of the companies that were not riding the PC wave. Siemens acquired Nixdorf. They didn't need a big administrative building in Paderborn, especially since Siemens was headquartered in Munich. It is that building that is now the museum.
I was a bit worried that the museum would be closed since it was Ascension Day, which is a holiday in Germany. The schools were all off. I had checked their website and it said it was open every day except Monday. When I arrived it was closed. Although it didn't say so on their website, it opens at 10am on holidays (as if it were a weekend) as opposed to 9am on a normal weekday. The cafeteria is huge and there were just 3 people in it when I went to get a coffee. So I think I hit the sweet spot: the museum was open, but there were none of the regular school tours.
One thing that is a bit disappointing is that all the signs are in German only, of which I only speak a little. The option in Google Translate where you can point it at a card describing the computer in German, and the screen shows the same view as if it was written in (bad) English was very useful.
I will describe the exhibits themselves in a separate post. This one is already long enough. But an overview. The museum doesn't just cover Nixdorf Computer, although obviously, it does that. It goes back to early days, when boards were assembled by hand from discrete transistors and resistors (even the ferrite cores were threaded by hand). Below is a picture of a handbestückundtisch (hand assembly table) from 1970. Surface-mount-technology (SMT) was still a decade or two in the future.
There are a number of Zuse machines (others are at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, see my post German Computer Museums). The sections on calculators, typewriters, and cell-phones are all large. The cell-phone exhibit goes all the way from radios before the famous Motorola "brick" up to last year's smartphones.
If you are interested in visiting, then their website is HNF: Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum (that's the link for it in English, it is also in German of course, and French and Dutch). You can get to Paderborn by train from any big city. It is halfway between the Köln/Dusseldorf/Dortmund/Essen megacity, and Hanover.
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