IEEE Gives a Special Citation to the Computer History Museum

It houses Google's first self-driving car and Charles Babbage's Difference Engine

2 November 2015

Last month, the IEEE History Center honored the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif.*, with a special citation. The museum, dedicated to the preservation of the history of the Information Age, was recognized for its role in educating the public through its collection of more than 9,000 artifacts and hands-on exhibits and for its activities with preuniversity students.

The center’s special citations, part of the IEEE Milestone program, recognize events or institutions that have contributed to the engineering profession.

DIGITAL MEMORY LANE

Today’s museum in Mountain View traces its roots to one that began life in 1979 in Maynard, Mass. That Digital Computer Museum, as it was called, was founded by IEEE Life Fellows Ken Olsen and Gordon Bell and by Bell’s wife, Gwen, who served as the museum’s first president. Olsen was the cofounder of Digital Equipment Corp., a major computer manufacturer from the 1960s to the 1990s, and Bell was one of its first employees, later serving as vice president of engineering.

The museum was originally located in DEC’s headquarters in Maynard. Its collection included analog calculators, punched-card computers, and MIT’s TX-0 computer, one of the first full-scale transistorized computers.

In 1984 the museum dropped Digital from its name and was moved to Boston. Three years later, the museum launched a fellows program to honor the engineers and computer scientists who made valuable contributions to the technologies many of us cannot live without today. That year, it also named its first fellow: computer pioneer and IEEE Fellow Grace Hopper. CHM fellows inducted later include IEEE Life Fellows Paul Baran and Vinton Cerf, who helped create the Internet, and Jean Bartik, who programmed the ENIAC computer. So far, the museum has 70 fellows.

A branch of the museum named the Computer History Museum opened in Mountain View in 1996 and showcased some of the Boston museum’s collection not previously on display. Three years later, the museum closed up shop in Boston and moved most of its artifacts to Mountain View.

ON DISPLAY TODAY

In the lobby of the museum is an elaborate piece of equipment designed on paper in the early 1800s but never built then. The Difference Engine No. 2 is a 4.5-metric-ton calculating machine with more than 8,000 moving parts. It was designed as a theoretical exercise by mathematics pioneer Charles Babbage and built, finally, in 1992 by engineers at Microsoft. (The Difference Engine No. 1, built in 1991 by engineers contracted by the Science Museum in London, is still on display there.) Visitors can see Difference Engine No. 2 in action once a day.

Other exhibits now on display in Mountain View include one titled Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, which traces computer history’s long arc from the abacus, an ancient Egyptian calculating tool, to an IBM punch-card machine that gathered information for the U.S. census from 1890 to 1940 all the way up to today’s smartphones and tablets. The exhibit is arranged in chronological order to cover 19 themes, including computer languages, gaming, mainframes, and digital storage.

In an interactive gaming exhibit, visitors can also play some of the first video games, including Spacewar! and Pong.

EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES

The museum is geared particularly to preuniversity students, with age-appropriate guided tours and interactive workshops. For example, in the exhibit Get Invested: Case Studies in Innovation, high school students learn how to pitch ideas for new technologies and solicit funding from “investors,” played by their teachers.

Once a month, the museum also invites students from local elementary schools to participate in Design Code Build, a workshop that introduces them to the basics of programming. Tech professionals kick off the workshop by sharing their personal coding experiences before the coding lessons begin. At the end of each session, students discuss the concepts and skills they learned. The semiconductor manufacturer Broadcom, in Irvine, Calif., hosts the workshops.

Educational programs for adults are also available. These include panel discussions, presentations about the museum’s artifacts and computer restoration projects, and experts who talk about emerging technologies and the historic milestones that shaped the computer industry. This month the museum will host talks about the Antikythera mechanism, a Greek computer dating back to approximately 200 B.C. that could predict lunar eclipses and the future positions of stars. Another program will focus on the career of George Boole, an English mathematician, philosopher, and logician, who introduced his namesake, Boolean algebra.

A ceremony honoring the Computer History Museum was held on 29 October. A plaque mounted on the wall of its lobby reads:

The Computer History Museum’s mission is to preserve and present for posterity the artifacts and stories of the Information Age. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of computers and related software, documents, and visual media. Public exhibits celebrate the rich history of computing, aided by a speaker series, education activities, historical restorations, and research programs.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

*This article has been corrected. 

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