A Guided Tour of Computing History

By  |  Thursday, December 2, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Steve Wozniak with George Stibitz's one-bit computer from 1936

Steve Wozniak with George Stibitz's one-bit computer from 1936

On January 13th, the seven-year-old Computer History Museum will open its first truly full-blown permanent exhibit:, the 25,000-square-foot, $19 million “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.” It’s been a long time in the making: It features a spectacular collection of computers and related apparatus begun by DEC founder Ken Olsen and computing legend Gordon Bell back in the mid-1970s, which spent some time at Boston’s now-defunct Computer Museum before making its way to its current home in Mountain View, California, within walking distance of the Googleplex.

The museum invited reporters for a sneak peek of the new exhibit this morning, and while it’s a work in progress–we saw mainframes still wrapped, Christo-style, in protective plastic wrap–it was a remarkable experience. Part of what made it remarkable was our guide, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.

Being led by Woz  (who was assisted by curator Chris Garcia) around a computer museum was a bit like touring the Holy Land with Moses. He seemed to have a personal story about programming nearly every historic machine we saw, and his excitement over the nerdy joys of engineering, code, and just plain liking gadgets was infectious.

How much did Woz love computers, back when he was growing up and both computers and information about them weren’t exactly plentiful? He used to break into the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center with a friend, where they’d secretly read computer magazines and order manuals from companies who advertised in the mags.

Herewith, some highlights of the tour–which included only a fraction of the wealth of stuff in the exhibit.

Here’s Herman Hollerith’s punch-card tabulating machine designed for the 1890 census–a predecessor of modern computers, and the product of a company that, after several mergers, evolved into IBM.

In this photo, Woz checks out a jumbo-sized IBM hard-drive system from the 1950s–he said he was proud that both he and the hard disk hailed from San Jose (and even mentioned the street address where hard drives were invented: 99 Notre Dame Ave.).

When I asked Woz about computers he admired, the first one he mentioned was Data General’s 1969 Nova, an early single-board minicomputer. (Again and again, he came back to praising engineering minimalism–accomplishing a task with the fewest possible parts and the simplest possible code.) He said that he wanted a Nova more than anything else in the world, and when his father asked him how he’d pay for a $4,000 computer he said he’d live in an apartment rather than a house. (He didn’t get the Nova, but its elegance influenced his Apple I and II designs.)

An amazing, massive 1960s Honeywell console, looking like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Someone reasonably asked Woz if it influenced the Apple II. Nope, he said–that machine’s look was more influenced by an IBM Selectric typewriter.

Woz also waxed enthusiastic over Atari’s original Pong coin-op game. When he first saw it, he did what any self-respecting genius would do: He went home and built one of his own that he played on his own TV. (He also eventually designed Atari’s Breakout, although the final version wasn’t based on his engineering.)

The museum has one of two functioning replicas of Charles Babbage’s legendary unbuilt, hand-cranked 19th-century computing machine, the Difference Engine No. 2.

While Woz’s tour was deeply personal, it was hardly self-promoting: He spent several minutes standing at a homebrew computer before he mentioned it was an Apple I. (His goal with the I, he said, was to build a computer that was as easy to use as a calculator.)

He was about to stroll right by an Apple II without stopping when Robert Scoble asked him to pose with it. Woz not only posed, but popped the top off the II–and the sight of him with an open Apple II is as neat a visual summary of the joy of personal technology as anything I’ve ever witnessed.

If you can get to Mountain View, you need to see Revolution. If you can’t, that’s okay: The museum says it’s going to put a digital version of the exhibit on its site, including everything from the real-world version, plus even more.


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15 Comments For This Post

  1. johnwbaxter Says:

    Thank you for sharing the tour of the Computer History Museum. Near the bottom of your post, I could feel my Apple ][ motherboard serial 537 trembling in the attic.

    Unfortunately, a trip to Mountain View is a day and a long half drive (or day and a night train ride) or a trip through the TSA and the mess that the airlines have made of air travel. (And return, of course.) I probably won't visit. Except via the web and your post.

    Lucky Harry to have done the tour.

  2. Robert Scoble Says:

    We'll have our videos of this tour up next week. There's a bunch to edit together. It was a real thrill, plus I got to have a private interview with Woz after the event, which was a ton of fun and interesting to boot. Here's an audio interview with the museum's CEO, talking about the new exhibit: http://www.cinchcast.com/scobleizer/128513

  3. dkavanagh Says:

    Thank you! I was going to ask about a video of the tour since hearing Woz's narration first hand would be priceless!

  4. Robert Scoble Says:

    Oh, and here's my writeup of the tour, http://scobleizer.com/2010/12/02/wozs-tour-throug… Nice to see you again!

  5. Harry McCracken Says:

    Thanks! (And good to see you and Rocky even though it was just seeing, not chatting!)

  6. @Pete_Brown Says:

    I always feel bad when I see Commodore cut out of computing history (or overlooked), when they were one of the big forces of the 80s, competing head-to-head with Apple, IBM and others.

    Still, looks like a cool exhibit 🙂

  7. @mikebluestein Says:

    Commodore made some of the only computers of the period that many people could afford. C64 was my first computer and where I first learned to write code (so blame them 🙂

  8. @csixty4 Says:

    The CHM definitely has some Commodore love going on. The "visible storage" exhibit (precursor to Revolution) had a C64, SX-64, and PET 2001 on display. I think there were some Commodore calculators in the calculator display too. They hosted a 25th anniversary event for Commodore, and even got Jack Tramiel to come out and say a few words (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBvbsPNBIyk).

    When I saw the designs for Revolution a few years ago, there was a note about having a working C64 in the 80s room. I think guests were going to be able to play Lunar Lander on it.

  9. Bob Washburn Says:

    When I told my colleagues at Data General that I was leaving to join Apple's northeast distributor as GM in 1978, Larry Seligman, who designed the Supernova in 1970, told me how impressed he was with Woz's design of the eight chip Apple II disk controller.
    Bob Washburn
    Apple and DG alum

  10. zongzeets Says:

    Thats just too cool! The Woz man totally rocks!

  11. Benj Edwards Says:

    Thanks for the report, Harry. I wish I could have been there (they invited me, but I live 2000+ miles away, *sigh*). This is the next best thing. Long live Woz!

  12. Darryl Says:

    Do they let you touch any of the computers? When I visited the museum 7 years ago, I was really sad that it was more Smithsonian than Exploratorium.

    Shortly thereafter I visited the Digibarn, and the contrast in approaches was obvious. The CHM is about preserving these relics. The Digibarn is about celebrating them. (We donated my family's Bally console with a BASIC cartridge. "Programming" on a 24-key controller. Oy.)

  13. Jim Norcal Says:

    Nice Story. Who's the beautiful girl in the (pong) photo I wonder? What was her part in this? Does she work there? Come on guys. I know you looked too!

  14. Esteban Says:

    I noticed.

  15. Manjeet Dahiya Says:

    Very good. Waiting for the digital version of the exhibit.