From the moment you step in to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, you are greeted with the invigorating scent of ceaseless ingenuity. It actually smells mostly like coffee and silicon. This non-profit organization located only miles from both the Google campus and Facebook HQ houses the largest international collection of computer artifacts, including hardware, software, photographs and documentation of the evolution of computing technology. Everything from the humble beginnings of the slide rule to punch card machines popularized in the United States by Roosevelt’s Social Security Act of 1935 and then on to the first supercomputer and everyone’s favorite Apple II – the museum walks visitors through each technological advancement with original artifacts and/or recreations, interviews with experts, and informational blurbs jam-packed with fun facts on each of their displays. Being the tech geek that I am, the Computer History museum is quickly becoming a second home for me – and I’d like to give you all a brief overview on a few of my favorite exhibits.
Allow me to introduce you all to this 11ft long, 7ft tall, 5-ton weighing beast of a machine, The Babbage Engine. There are approximately two of these beauties in existence – one in the London Science Museum, and one right here in the heart of Silicon Valley. Charles Babbage, often cited as the Father of the computer, is credited with inventing the first computer back in early 1800’s – the Babbage Difference Engine. However, he never actually built one – it wasn’t until 1991 that a team of scientists and engineers at the London Science Museum gathered up the drawings and documentation left behind by Babbage, and began to construct the Difference Engine No. 2. It was completed in 2002, a mere 153 years after its original design.
The funding for a pursuit such as this, to build a machine that is a century and a half out of date simply to see if it would have worked, isn’t exactly easy to come back. Luckily, around the late 90’s and early 2000’s – there were a lot of computer and technology wizards raking in some serious cash. Nathan Myhrvold, the ChiefTechnology Officer at Microsoft (at the time), decided that he wanted a Babbage Difference Engine of his own. He offered the London engineers the money to finish the engine – on the pretense that once it was completed, he could keep it for his personal collection. Respectfully, the London engineers said, “uh, no.” Myhrvold countered with an offer to fund the completion of the first engine, and the construction of a second for himself. The boys in London thought this sounded like a great use of their time, and so the two Babbage Engines were built.
Here’s the thing about something that weighs 5 tons – you can’t really put it in a house. Despite the planning Myhrvold thought he had done to design a living room in his summer house to fit the Engine’s size, when moving day came around, the architect of Myhrvold’s house said, “uh, no.” With a massive, really-cool-looking-but-completely-outdated piece of technology sitting on the shipping palette waiting to be transported somewhere, Myhrvold offered it, on loan, to the Computer History Museum for safe-keeping while he built a new place for it to live. The Museum has offered to buy it from him several times over the last few years – but Myhrvold has been holding out, hoping to one day find a castle or private island large enough to contain one of his most prized possessions. The museum will have the Babbage Engine on display through the end of 2015 – when surely they will attempt to obtain it permanently once more.
I was watching an episode of Friends the other day when Chandler gets a new laptop. He quotes out a bunch of specs that are laughable: 100MB hard drive? That’s enough capacity for about…20 MP3s. Low quality. And the thing is a brick. It must have weighed 25 pounds with the dense thud it makes on the table when he sets it down. Which is why the exhibits on the evolution of personal computers, super computers, and portable computers is one of my favorites at CHM. Computer technology has gone from big to bigger to less big to small in a span of, oh, 50 years. Remember that episode of Mad Men when the ad agency gets a computer that takes up an entire room? Yeah, no thanks. But when you look back at where we started, with super computers and the first IBM Machines, well, it makes you appreciate your iPhone a whole lot more.
Supercomputers weren’t just regular computers that happened to be massive, even though the first of their kind, the Cray-1, was a floor to ceiling tower that weighed roughly 5.5 tons. They were called supercomputers because they really were super. Like the sportscar of the computing world – super computers were faster, more complex, and far more expensive than the personal computers of the time. They were built for agencies like the Atomic Energy Commission, who used them for designing nuclear weapons, and for the National Weather Service, who needed the multiple processors and faster speeds for predicting hurricane patterns. The museum houses several of these supercomputer masterpieces, as well as the many different evolutions of the personal computer, some of which were great successes, and some ridiculously bad failures.
Despite the fact that not a single one of the 1969 Neiman-Marcus kitchen computers sold for the $10,000 asking price – I don’t think it was because having a computer to store recipes was a bad idea – I think it was because you needed a 2-week programming course to use it, and all your recipes would have to be converted to binary. Converting ounces to cups is hard enough, thank you very much.
A while back I wrote about my own encounter with a self-driving car, and how, generally, the technology worked. So you can imagine my excitement when the Computer History Museum, in partnership with Google, opened their newest exhibit on driverless cars and the technology behind autonomous vehicles. The car you see in this photo is one of Google’s newest driverless cars that I’ve seen out and about on the major roadways in the Bay Area.
The black box on top is a laser that is used to give the computer a 360-degree perspective of the environment around the car. This laser also helps tell the car where in the world it is, using GPS navigation technology. Inside the wheel hubs there are sensors that track the rotations of the tires to help the car know where its physical position in the world is – for any of us who have ever been told by our GPS unit that we’re in the middle of a body of water, any self-driving car would need to have a backup plan for GPS tracking pre-installed.
In the car’s interior there is a thing called an ‘orientation sensor.’ This works much like a human being’s inner ear – it gives the car a sense of balance and motion, so the car will have a clear understanding of its orientation in a moving world. Lastly, the car comes equipped with radar which is used to detect objects near the car to prevent a driverless vehicle from mowing down a few pedestrians on its way to driving off a bridge. As you can see from this video that I took at the museum, probably illegally but no one said not to, this is what the computer sees as a driverless car navigates the streets of what looks a lot like Mountain View, California. Purple boxes represent other cars, the little red squares are cyclists, and there are even a couple tiny pedestrians that the computer’s radar and linear has detected across the intersection. Oh and the laser on top can see that the light is red, which is great since there are also cars crossing the intersection in front. Pretty cool, right?
If you head over to the museum this year, you can check out a longer video like that one, and also read about how driverless cars are already being used in several different countries today. The complete history of autonomous vehicles is depicted with videos and visual displays around the robot-controlled Lexus, and there’s even a drone suspended directly overhead towards the end of the exhibit – just so you can feel that tiny quell of panic right before your eyes register the wires that are holding it in place. Still, I have to tell you, once I looked up and noticed the drone hovering directly in front of me, I took a few steps back, just for good measure. A girl can never be too careful these days.
Even though it was my third time back at the Computer History Museum, I still managed to lose several hours of my afternoon listening to the presentation of the Babbage Engine, catching snippets of the free tour presented by one of the museum’s docents, and milling around on my own, noticing things I had missed before, or new additions to the collection. I have yet to make it on a first Friday, where there’s a presentation and tour about Women in Computing in the afternoon. That’s my next trip, I hope.
If you aren’t planning a trip to the Bay Area any time soon, you can also check out a ton of information through the museum’s website. However you absorb the information – the Computer History Museum is a wealth of tech-talk, tech-appreciation, and also, there’s an entire exhibit on the Atari machines. What else could a girl want?