Tech History

The Computer History Museum Gets a Reboot


In Silicon Valley, nostalgia is an unwelcome diversion. This is a region ruled by Moore's Law, an observation about improvements in transistor size that turned into a commandment that technology get faster, better, and cheaper all the time. People here trample the old in pursuit of the new—and have little time to recollect.

All of which would seem like bad news for the Computer History Museum. Since its opening here in 2002, the Mountain View (Calif.) institution has mostly been a modest gallery, basically a warehouse full of old mainframes, supercomputers, and PCs with placards tacked on them. Only a few hundred people visited each week. "Nothing had any explanation," says Leslie Berlin, the project historian for Stanford University's Silicon Valley Archives. "There were just hulking machines sitting in a corner."

On Jan. 13 the Computer History Museum got a reboot—although in a sense it's a whole new product. Thanks to a $19 million renovation (financed in large part by a $15 million gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), the building has been transformed from an under-trafficked storage facility into a proper museum that documents the rise not only of computers but also of technology over thousands of years. Silicon Valley, ever focused on the future, now has a temple honoring the past.

The museum sits just off Highway 101, next door to Microsoft's (MSFT) Silicon Valley campus and about a mile from the Googleplex. The building itself is a relic, the former home of hardware giant Silicon Graphics (SGI), which boomed, busted, and relocated to a humbler site in the early 2000s.

The old version of the museum was an exercise in minimalism. An exhibit on the history of chess-playing machines and computers was the only one recognizable as well-designed museum fare. Version 2.0, by contrast, carries a dramatic flourish. The designers borrowed the aesthetic of an Apple (AAPL) store to give their 25,000 square feet of exhibition space a crisp, modern feel. The main entrance evokes computing's early days with punch-card patterns on the floor. Visitors are greeted by the sound of modems gurgling as they connect to the Web.

In the first five days after reopening, nearly 1,700 visitors trekked through the museum's 19 interlinked galleries, which provide a journey through the history of technology, from the abacus to the iPod. The exhibits are complemented by multimedia displays, including old Apple commercials and an exploration of how companies such as Intel (INTC) manufacture chips. The galleries play off "hero objects" such as the original trash-can-size disk drive; the first personal digital assistant, the Palm Pilot; and the Xerox Alto, an early version of the PC.

Stanford's Berlin says the oral history displays, in which engineers and company founders reflect on their work, are some of the museum's nicer touches. "People here are so focused on trying to figure out what the next decade will bring that they think of themselves as not giving much attention to the past," she says. Yet every technology company has what Berlin calls a "storytelling tradition," often including tales of audacious decisions that gave a company its character.

The collection has 100,000 artifacts, although most are stored in a nearby facility available to researchers. The items on display include IBM songbooks (Hail to the IBM, anyone?), a $10,000 kitchen computer from 1969 designed to help housewives with recipes, early virtual reality devices, enormous supercomputers built by hand with 100 miles of wiring, vacuum tubes galore, and the first Google servers. There is also a hunk of the bar from the Wagon Wheel, a local watering hole where venture capitalists, CIA agents, and KGB spies used to hang out to imbibe and gauge the state of the industry. "There's just way too much to see in the time I thought I had," says Bruce Molyneux of Bristol, England, who visited the museum during a recent business trip.

The juxtaposition of new(ish) and old resonated with many of the visitors who checked out the upgraded museum on its opening weekend. "It really puts things in perspective," says Benny Hsieh, a local technology administrator. "You really get a feel for how all this started."

Tourists and locals have long mourned the dearth of historic sites in the Valley. The headquarters of the first semiconductor businesses have given way to fruit stands and retail storefronts. The famed garages where Hewlett and Packard, Jobs and Wozniak, and Brin and Page developed their innovations remain private property, generally off-limits to the public. The upgraded Computer History Museum is a place for the technologically curious to learn where modernity came from—or maybe just to play Pong on an oversize screen.

The bottom line: After an impressive renovation, the Computer History Museum is a monument to the past in a region that forgets it has one.

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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