A place to display 'ancient' computers Museum in Boston seeks space in Silicon Valley for historical artifacts

November 03, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- For now, its a warehouse filled with artifacts from hackers' garages and corporations' dark basements.

But the Computer Museum, of Boston, wants to open a museum in the Silicon Valley to illuminate the history of the computer industry -- as soon as it finds the proper place. The new Computer Museum History Center will display relics from 14 years of breakneck technological change, from ancient calculators and supercomputers to notorious virus software and games.

For the moment, the collection is not available to the general public. It's only open to researchers, educators, engineers and journalists.

While the Computer Museum in Boston is full of interactive exhibits for the lay audience, the History Museum here is to be a place for historically significant hardware and software.

"For the techno-nerds of Silicon Valley, this is exactly what we need," said John Wharton, a technology analyst with Applications Research, in Palo Alto, Calif., and the inventor of the Intel 8051 microcontroller. "This is like rolling out a '57 Chevy for somebody working in the valley in the '70s. I'm looking forward to there being a place where I can relive my technological youth."

Still seeking relics

The center's co-founders are C. Gordon Bell, a Microsoft researcher, and Leonard J. Shustek, co-founder of Network General Corp. And even as they search for a home, they're also still looking for nifty relics.

Gwen Bell, founding president of the Computer Museum and Gordon Bell's wife, is a walking encyclopedia of the museum's contents. If you point to a dusty device, Bell can explain it. A single running shoe sitting on a cardboard box prompts her to point out the Adidas Micropacer, a pair of silver leather running shoes made in 1985. A sensor in the toe of the shoe connects to a microprocessor embedded in the tongue, which calculates speed, distance and the caloric output of the person wearing the shoe. The shoe never caught on in a big way and was discontinued.

A pile of discarded mechanical calculators sits near the entrance. They were made obsolete by the advent of Intel's 4004 microprocessor, which spawned the first electronic calculators. But they're an important part of computing history.

Also in the collection: early pointing devices that made possible the point-and-click graphical user interface, instead of the archaic command-driven interface of the past. Odd robots. Rows of stacked boxes brimming with research-and-development records. And 3,000 photographs of workers, their products and their warrens.

From the pre-PC days, there's part of a Whirlwind, a dusty, heavy, ancient-looking computer built for the Air Force in the late 1940s and early 1950s, used as a flight simulator for weapons.

There's a section of the NEAC, the first computer built by NEC in the late 1950s.

"It dispels the notion that Japan didn't have a computer industry," Gwen Bell explains. Koji Kobayashi, NEC's retired chairman and an original member of the board of the museum when it opened in 1982, donated the heavy machine, built using transistors rather than vacuum tubes.

Early PCs

Of course, there are early personal computers, from the Altair 8800 to an Apple Lisa.

And there's a multicolor Powerbook 170, signed by former Apple Computer CEO John Sculley in 1993. The computer was specially styled for a women's golf tournament in Japan.

The collection of quaint computers in odd shapes and sizes brings the history of the industry to life. Besides the obvious, like an original IBM PC, there are odd footnotes to the history of computing, such as the Apricot Xi. The little-known, commercially unsuccessful Apricot used an Intel 8086 processor and ran DOS, but sported a Mac-like graphical user interface in 1984 -- well before Microsoft released Windows.

Adam Ettinger, an attorney with Pillsbury Madison & Sutro LLP in Menlo Park, Calif., donated the Apricot, which he used for five years after buying it in a close-out sale. "It was an interesting example of people who pushed technology to consumers that was ahead of its time," he said.

There's Seymour Cray's Navy Tactical Data System (NTDS) Unit computer. The 58.6-cubic-foot device weighed in at 2,320 pounds. The NTDS, used for real-time tactical analysis, display and control of weapons, cost $500,000 at the time.

It's difficult to put a value on the items in the collection. "It's invaluable either because it can't be reproduced, or the cost of recreating would be millions of dollars," Bell said.

The Computer Museum History Center is looking for museum-quality space, with high ceilings, the right acoustics, easy access, and room layout, said Carol Welsh, managing director. If the right location doesn't exist, it will be built.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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