Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA

Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing

I visited the Computer History Museum’s stunning new permanent exhibition today. I had been to the museum before, but this makeover is an order of magnitude better than I could have imagined. There is so much more on display, organised into logical sections which describe everything from the earliest birth of computing objects through to the latest developments in programming languages.

The old favourites (like the IBM System/360) are all still there, but displayed much more imaginatively than before, and with a good deal of contextualising text and imagery, making the most of the museum’s collection of brochures and documents that have previously been mostly hidden away.

The sheer size of the exhibition means it is difficult to absorb in one go, and the staff recommend going through the whole display quickly to get a sense of the scale of the thing, before going round again to take in in more detail the areas of greatest interest – otherwise, after a few hours time might  run out, leaving a lot of things unseen. Which, given the huge effort the curators have obviously made in creating something special, would be a real shame.

The highlight of my day, however, wasn’t the DEC Nova, The Honeywell ‘Kitchen Computer’, or the fantastic imagery of early mobile computers – fantastic as these all are. In fact, my highlight isn’t actually a part of the ‘Revolution’ exhibition at all, although it should be. The CHM currently has on loan a fully working replica of Charles Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine No. 2’, and unlike the one at the Science Museum in London, it is not in a glass case. Seeing this, what has to be the most fantastic computer imagined but never built until 120 years after the death of its inventor, being put through its paces and calculating polynomial functions in a hypnotic flurry of cogs and levers, has to be seen to be believed. Sublime.


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