Computer History Museum: Mountain View, CA

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California, is a relatively new museum that’s still finding its legs. It is a work of love the houses donations not only from corporations, but from the individual movers and shakers of the bay area (the guys who actually invented the stuff you use today) who donated items from their garages and attics — as in some of them are friends of mine and I remember when this place first opened up.

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One of my favorite people on the planet, I guy who I’ve known for over 20+ years (I knew him when was still an un-tenured professor in Chicago — we used to be dance partners at a country western bar in Chicago — he’s had four books on the New York Times best seller’s list since then), who I wanted to catch up with while I was in town (he’s become impossibly hard to contact since his success) suggested that we meet for lunch at a South American place called Voya located in Mountain View — we had ceviche which was ok, and a few other fish things… didn’t think it was anything to write home about and I was paying more attention to being with my friend than the food… so no review

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(I got his Uber driver to take this photo of us before he took off — I think our last photo together was at his wedding) … ANYWAY… AS I got there a bit early … while waiting for him to arrive, I was walking around…

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you know you’re in the Bay area when….

when I realized that the computer museum …. (one of the jewels of the bay area) was directly across the street …. A place I have not been to in about 16 years… So after he went back to work I went in for a visit.

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By the time I had shopped the gift store, gone to the bathroom, took my purchases back to the car (in part out of fear that my windows had been smashed — see below), yadda yadda, yadda….

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It was already was already 3:30 in the afternoon and instead of having to pay $17.50 to get in (YEESH, that’s EXPENSIVE) I only had to pay $10. You’ll notice this is NOT advertised on their sign. In fact I was utterly clueless to it and just got lucky … the guy who was working the front desk… who had seen me earlier while I was scoping out the gift store

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Whole sections of the store are devoted to women in the sciences stuff, or stuff geek girls might want…  so I got very buy-happy/excited
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Why yes I did get the bumper sticker, why do you ask?
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And of course I got the geek girl jewelry (am now the proud owner of the hoop earrings with fuses hanging in them –these are the sort that are hidden in cars and appliances), and a few other pieces made from computer parts
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That said, NOT ONE of the t-shirts for sale had a V-neck or scoop neck collar, so I didn’t get any of them (which made me very sad)

… HE assumed I had timed it intentionally, calling me a “smart woman” for doing it; but I swear, it was just dumb luck.

That said, there are two sections to the museum, the first one is to the left of the check in counter where you buy your tickets. The other is off to the right, between the counter and the gift shop. The first section, left of the counter, is mostly devoted to temporary exhibits (more than one) while the other is the permanent collection.

At the time I went one of the temporary ones was devoted to a brilliant woman who was not really awarded her just deserts in her lifetime due entirely to her gender… Ada Lovelace

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Lovelace is considered by some to be the first person to fully recognize that the computing machine had applications beyond simply doing calculations, wrote a paper that included an algorithm on this topic, and is as such considered (by those who support her) as having been the first computer programmer (software engineer, versus hardware engineer… and “never the twain shall meet” (for those who don’t know, engineers tend to be one or the other, only VERY rarely are they both).

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The other ‘temporary’ exhibit seemed to be more of a rotating one devoted to any and all of “newest” computer driven technology trends (well, the ones that are public anyway), everything from computer graphics, to texting, to medical technologies (like MRIs) to…

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…the currently oh so sexy topic of fully automated cars. These would be the next step forward after my Subaru which has saved my life more than few times already by spotting potential accidents that I fully admit that I utterly would have missed (or not as the case might be) but for its warning me of them. My car, however, I still have to drive, in the future… a technology which is already visible (in its testing phases), at least on the streets of the Bay area…. is completely self driven cars.

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Pics I took of the testing of “self driven cars” on Bay area streets

This exhibit talked about the not to distant future (hopefully) where they’ve managed to test all the bugs out and fully self driven cars are ready for prime time (a future that I for one look forward to, as I’ve never been one to drive for the fun of it).

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This included side topics of how they are able to now utilize the computer graphics from the previous room create virtual car crashes. Virtual testing allows manufacturers a much cheaper way to test every conceivable sort of normally inconceivable crash, rather than actually smashing up a car. As some of you know, they used to only test two or three different sorts of common crashes; virtual testing allows them to reenact the uncommon ones, as well as test what might happen in those relatively unlikely cases with the newer cars, not yet on the roads.

IMG_0312Additionally, as self driving cars rely a great deal on computerized maps, they also had a small exhibit showing just how advanced this has become… presented by Google Maps

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And there was also segment devoted to Wikipedia (which anyone reading my blog knows I’m a big fan of)

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Indirectly the Museum was exhibiting something it never talked about directly, but which I’ve NEVER seen before and hence was VERY aware of… i.e., a new technology for use in museum presentations

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Now that said, One of the things that impressed me was an innovative sound management system that I’ve not seen anywhere else.

If you look carefully at the picture below you’ll see a woman watching a video in the middle of wide open space… this is pretty unusual although you might not realize it… normally movies are presented in cordoned off areas where the acoustics can be easily controlled. What’s even more unusual is from where she’s sitting the sound is completely clear and distinct, almost to the extent that it was like wearing headphones … or as though it were the only sound in the room, like in a movie theater. YET, from where I took the picture, you can only barely hear what she’s listening to at all.

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How you ask? Well… look above her head and you’ll see there is small white square hanging from the ceiling… That’s where the sound came from… Now, logic dictates that it’s some sort of directed speaker that produces very directed sound waves. As in, she can hear it loudly and distinctly without it annoying someone a few feet away (where I was standing). From there, it merges into a sort of white noise created by the various soundtracks all running simultaneously but without the effect of cacophony of sound, like you get in other museums.

You can’t see it, but right behind me was a different video, with the same set up, with its own sound track, that in no way interfered with the experience the woman in the above picture was having. Now let’s face it, I go to a LOT of museums and I’ve never seen this technology in use before. I have no idea how much it costs but I hope to see it a lot more regularly from now on. It rocked…

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Returning to the museums itself: On this same side of the museum there they also have regular demonstrations of the OLD IBM mainframe computer systems that used to process things like company payrolls, first introduced back in 1959, which had been given the catchy name of the IBM CMH-1401

IMG_0305The demos are given every few hours by actual retired former IBM employees, whose jobs had been to keep the 1401 running in its heyday (read the signs below)IMG_0306

Interestingly, they do so to large throngs of very interested young programmers… keep in mind this was about 3:30 on a Wednesday, not one child or family unit in the room.

IMG_5202These all looked to be young programmers (most were between 23 and 35), new to the bay area (possibly)… and you could tell the older retired engineers were really happy to be so appreciated by the younger generation of engineersIMG_0304At the end of the demonstration you could create a punch card with your name… which I did, and receive a custom printed … on a HISTORIC printer … that says you visited the place (as you can see I was there on September 5th, 2018).

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After this I went to check out the permanent exhibit: This is in fact my 2nd time coming to this museum. The first time was about 16 YEARS ago in 2002 (the year I finally completed my dissertation) while I was still living in the bay area and was invited to the grand opening event for this ‘new’ building for the collection… by friends who had donated various contents from their garage to be shown in here … in fact I knew more than few people at that event who were all there for the same reason (donating objects to the collection). I have to say that at that time the museum was HIGHLY UN-impressive… Since then, major upgrades have occurred and it’s clear they have hired a fairly decent curator to organize the thing, and while it’s still imperfect, it is now quite IMPRESSIVE, although imperfect.

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It starts out logically enough with “ancient” tools for making calculations (as in ones my dad was using 50 years ago), like slide rules, abacuses and maritime tools… and then moves on to things like

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Calculating tools that helped during World War II, back when women who typed in the all the data were called calculators, to innovations of the 1950’s

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there’s discussion of stops and starts and lateral moves as various technologies came up and then quickly died as someone else came up with a more elegant solution

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And there’s discussion of the problems women had entering the male dominated field… to techs that I remember using when I was in grad school (20 years ago)

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I particularly got a kick out of the video game section which talked about these on-line Unix based games like rogue and dungeon crawls where if you got far enough in the game you were allowed to contribute a dungeon section that you had coded yourself to the larger game… but it meant you had to learn the language C++ in order to do it… which drove a lot of players to learn to code.

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… and there were also the more passive games, where you just a customer, like Pac-Man (which my brother excelled at) and pong. IMG_0299IMG_0327

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One of the things that I did NOT like was just how easy it is to get turned around and lost in the maze of exhibits.

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Look at the map above, even there it’s like, “HUH” … unlike most museums there’s no clear path, it’s like a bit like a  giant fun house maze

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… to the extent that there they have had to place massive markers on the floor to direct you around … markers that if the museum were well laid out shouldn’t exist. That said, I can SORT of see a justification for messy layout, in that innovation and the connections between technologies isn’t a straight forward thing. Innovation goes backwards and side-ways and every which way… but a museum really shouldn’t do that.

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I mean look at the above space, really look at them, and tell me if can figure where you’re supposed to go next in terms of the layout of the exhibit. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to it… and seriously, I got kind of lost in it. I almost never get lost.

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