Computer History comes to life

Last Friday, I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the ever-changing technology that is the Computer. And surprisingly, when I left the museum, it left me wanting to learn more!

When I arrived at the museum, I got a student discount simply for attending college. Discounts also apply to employees of tech companies such as Google and many others. I immediately liked that they were giving me the V.I.G. (Very Important Geek) treatment.

Napier’s Bones was a type of abacus that was used for multiplication and division.

What do you think of when you hear the words “first computer”? A giant, unwieldy version of our current desktop computers? The Computer History Museum thinks back even further! The first exhibit showcased ancient calculators – the abacus, the slide rule, Napier’s Bones – which were tools that people used to do math faster. Since computers are also tools that do math faster, it’s important to understand the primitive machines like the abacus. I enjoyed playing with the real abacus and slide rule that were part of the display. I even learned how to use Napier’s Bones. The pre-made tiles, much like multiplication tables, are lined up in order of the larger multiplied number (in the photo, that number is 379). Then the smaller number that is multiplied (1 through 9) tells which row to read off to compute the solution. This is how mathematicians and scientists used to multiply large numbers quickly. It really made me appreciate the four-function calculators we have today.

Continuing to the next exhibits, I began encountering real machines. Large tabletop machines, machines as tall as the ceiling. Some, like the Differential Analyzer, were made of gears and disks that had to be set a certain way to solve one math problem – also known as analog because the computations relied on physical properties of the world, such as moving gears. Others,  such as the early IBM computers, were programmed by punched card – a pattern of punched and unpunched holes in a piece of paper served as “code” that these old computers could understand. (These machines are digital because they used single pieces of data, like hole punches.) Some computers were too large to be put on display! Computers like ENIAC from the 1940s were the size of giant rooms, over 42 feet long. To program and fix problems with ENIAC, technicians had to walk around inside it.

The rest of the museum had anything that could catch your interest. The beginning of microchips, demos on Boolean logic operators, the Internet, video games like Pac-man and Pong, smartphones, memes. There were quite a few exhibits on failed computer designs, my favorite being the kitchen computer from 1969.

Computer scientists wear their sense of humor on their sleeves with these witty badges.

Literally no one bought this crazy invention – to program the computer to keep recipes and menus, the cook or housewife would have to take a 2-week programming course and enter in all ingredients in binary – ones-and-zeros code. The price was $10,000 1969 dollars. That’s today’s equivalent price of one year of my college education.

Computer scientists have also developed an overly healthy sense of humor. An entire wall was dedicated to pins and badges that tech company employees would wear to conventions and such. It was fun to browse through them all and laugh at the ones I could understand. To computer nerds, they’re hilarious. To outsiders, they make no sense. Thank goodness that visiting this museum practically makes you a computer world insider.

A tour guide shows us a working Babbage Engine.

The limited-time exhibit of the Babbage Difference Engine was definitely worth the 200-mile drive to the museum! Charles Babbage, a computing genius before the time of computers, dreamed up a design for a machine that would compute the value of polynomials with speed and accuracy. A polynomial that looks like “x2 + 6x -7″ has a different value depending on what X is, and X could be any number. Also, polynomials can have more terms. The Engine on display at this museum could handle up to 8 terms. You can see why Babbage was interested in having a machine figure out the answers for him! For a more detailed explanation of how Babbage computed polynomials, visit http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/. Better yet, visit the Computer History Museum yourself!

I was so impressed at the entertaining and educational design of this museum. There was so much fascinating information packed in there, the hours I spent wandering around were not enough, and I plan to go back in the near future to continue my computer history education. It’s designed for anyone to enjoy. There are interactive demos, video screenings, models of ancient computers, and even video games to play that will keep you interested for your entire visit. And you should be interested: computers are so important to our world and way of life, everyone ought to learn a little more about all the hard work that has gone into these technological marvels.