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Mountain View Voice

News - January 14, 2011

A digital 'Revolution'

Renovated computer museum captures two millennia of computing

by Nick Veronin

Light flooded into the spacious 5,000-square-foot lobby of the Computer History Museum on Tuesday, Jan. 11, bouncing off of the pristine white terrazzo tile floor and stainless steel surfaces, and illuminating the already brightened faces of the curators and guests of honor who gathered two days in advance of institution's grand reopening.

The new 25,000-square-foot exhibit, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing," guides visitors through a series of rooms filled with artifacts, photography, video, audio and interactive displays — all of which are related to computers and high technology. It opens to the public Thursday, Jan. 13.

After viewing an introductory film, visitors to the new exhibit are ushered into an area filled with antiquated computing tools, such as an abacus and a device known as "Napier's bones."

Elaborate computing charts are replaced by punch-card and tape-driven analog computers; machines the size of a sport utility vehicle give way to silicon wafers the size of a Belgian waffle; soon enough, visitors to Revolution are peering through a microscope at a chip the size of a lady bug, as a placard reminds passersby of Moore's Law. "The number of transistors and other components on integrated circuits will double every year for the next 10 years," it proclaims.

Moving through the exhibit, as the chips get more compact, the devices in which they are used become more recognizable as common household items. What begins with gargantuan machines that would be difficult to fit into a two-car garage ends with a slew of devices that most people use every day — perhaps without ever giving a second thought to the decades of toil that made them possible.

"Our world runs on computers," said John Hollar, president, CEO and curator of the museum. Hollar hopes a wide range of visitors will come to the museum. "It's an exhibit not just for techies; it is an exhibit for the general public."

Museum officials hope that those who attend the museum, fan boy or not, will see just how much of a role computers play in our everyday lives. Hollar compared the invention of computers to the creation of the printing press and the cotton gin, calling them "the amplifier of the mind."

That sentiment — that computers are an outgrowth of humans and meant to work symbiotically with everything humans do — was echoed by other museum officials, as well as seen in the multimedia displays found throughout the museum.

Jim McClure, who led a tour for members of the media on Jan. 11, made a point to remind the group that "up until the 1950s, the term 'computer' was reserved solely for people who did computing."

McClure, who calls Revolution "our new toy," says that to witness the history of computers linearly in such a small space is to see the gradual transference of tasks once done by humans to machines.

That is, of course, not all computers are good for. As Hollar pointed out, computers also do things humans could never do — like track satellites in outer space and crunch impossibly complex equations at breakneck speeds.

Assembling the collection of roughly 1,100 artifacts on display and raising the $19 million used for the renovations and additions took some doing, according to Dag Spicer, senior curator for the Computer History Museum.

The museum has a "very modest" acquisition budget, Spicer said, noting that most of what is on display at Revolution was donated. The money was raised mostly from private contributions, which included a $15 million "gift" from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Once funds were found, the project took about two years to complete. The museum broke ground on renovations in January 2009.

Spicer, who worked as an engineer for 10 years before going back to school, was working on a doctoral degree at Stanford on the history of science when the museum reached out to him. He said he is proud to work for the Computer History Museum, where he has been for the past 15 years.

He said his favorite object in the Revolution exhibit is an original Enigma, which several countries, including Nazi Germany, used to create coded messages during times of war.

The museum's design, created by Mark Horton Architecture, gives the impression that the visitor is inside a computer chip. Its sharp lines and shiny surfaces are austere — visitors shuffle through the exhibit like electricity over copper wire, coming to rest in little alcoves of silicon before darting down the next hallway.

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