Touring the Computer History Museum – with Chuck Thacker

Maybe the title of this post should be TURING the Computer History Museum given Chuck Thacker won the prestigious Turing Award in 2009. As the Wikipedia entry notes, The Turing Award is recognized as the “highest distinction in Computer science” and “Nobel Prize of computing”. I considered myself privileged to get a private tour of the museum, but to walk through it with Chuck Thacker it a bit like going to NASA with Neil Armstrong.


The Museum itself it an impressive space – a modern building that houses a lot of history. It was a short walk from the office that houses Microsoft Research in Mountain View and is a (long) stones throw from the Googleplex. You can find it on Bing Maps and as I strolled down the road from our office, I quietly remembered my humble beginnings in computing, at school in the UK, programming in COBOL and never imagining I would be chatting with the man who basically invented the modern day PC.


The first item we came across was The Babbage Engine – now 153 years old and faithfully rebuilt by the museum from original drawings. I’ve seen the same machine in London’s Science Museum and it was no less impressive here. Even more so when Chuck talked me through how it worked.

We entered the main museum and I was surprised to see an array of slide rules as the first exhibit and we searched for the one that Chuck used to have at college. We moved on through calculators, analog computers and the punched card era with none of the technology being familiar to me. What was surprisingly familiar was the source of many of the inventions – with Manchester, Cambridge and places in London regularly being cited as hotbeds of early computing. One real surprise for me was to find Lyons Tea starring in the exhibition with England’s first commercial computer. The Lyons Electronic Office was employed to solve clerical issues and the production and scheduling of cake deliveries around the UK. Lyons cakes…nom nom.


One of the highlights of the tour was bumping into three gents who were excited to show us a 50-year old IBM 350 RAMAC machine that they’d successfully recovered data from. This machine used a series of circular magnetic platters with mechanical heads that shot between the platters to read and write data. They enquired if we’d like to have a demo to which Chuck and I enthusiastically agreed and they began explaining what was happening. As the demo continued, Chuck began to ask more and more detailed questions and at some point it became clear to us all that Chuck knew more than anyone about this machine and how it worked. The three gents gave him a look as if to ask “who exactly are you”. Computing royalty was in town. The video below was my quick capture of the demo.

On we went, reminiscing about von Neumann architectures and noted the appearance of Grace Hopper – she spotted the first computer bug in 1945, a moth stuck between the relays and logged at 15:45 hours on the Harvard Mark II. Who knew that’s where the name bug came from? God bless Grace as without her I’d never have learned COBOL!

We slowly started to move out of the mechanical age in to transistor age – names like Burroughs and RAND gave way to DEC, Xerox. Others, like HP and IBM lived on through the ages. We passed machines such as the PDP-1, home to the first computerized video game, SpaceWar and Seymour Cray’s CDC 6600 supercomputer. As we passed machines like the IBM System 380 my own history with computers started to approach having heard about this machine from my father, though it was a few more rooms before I started pointing to things and saying “ooh, I remember that”. Chuck started that reaction a little earlier in the tour Smile


We entered the 1970’s and approached the Alto from Xerox – Chuck’s baby. For a machine that is 37 years old, it looked pretty funky – especially with the CRT screen in portrait mode, much like folks have today – albeit dedicated to a Twitter stream. The Alto was revolutionary, being the first work station with a built-in mouse for input. It stored several files simultaneously in windows, offered menus and icons, and could link to a local area network. Sounds familiar? It was in many ways the inspiration for the 1984 Macintosh and Windows. Expecting Chuck to spend some time wistfully looking at the machine, I was surprised when he walked on by, seemingly keener to look at some of the newer exhibits. I guess he’s probably seen the Alto more than most!

The 1975 Altair 8800 looked just like the one in the Microsoft Visitor Center and marked the point at which Microsoft began to show up in the exhibition. It was the machine on which began the fledgling company, licensing BASIC for the machine. Having seen the Alto, a machine dreamed up 4 years earlier, it was odd to see the Altair with its switches and lights – but the price difference was huge between the two, which explained a lot.

We stumbled across a CRAY 1 and I finally got to sit on its bench-like structure and then the machines I recognized started to come thick and fast. The Commodore PET, Apple II and the first IBM PC in 1981 – running at whopping 4.77MHz on an Intel 8088 with MS-DOS. The Commodore 64 showed up, as did the name Compaq, Amiga,  and NeXT. Glass cases were filled with mobile devices, many of which I owned from Psion, Sony, HP and Ericsson. Oh and the BBC Microcomputer. Classic.


The final areas of the exhibition were given over to computer gaming, mobile devices, Atari, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and the Internet. If I have any complaints about the museum it would be that this section is far too small to do justice to the last 30 years of computing which have arguably been the most impactful. There were some great artifacts of the Internet such as a Google server but surprisingly no sign of Kinect or Twitter. I guess there is plenty of time to add these things while time is spent on older restorations such as the PDP-1. I worry though that the speed of today’s industry may leave us without some of the important moments of history being created each day.


With that, Chuck and I parted ways. I stuck around, reading things like the board showing donations from various companies and individuals who had made the exhibit happen. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given generously, and I noticed many individuals I have read about through the years.

I’d had a terrific hour or so with one of the legends of modern day computing and as always happens in those moments, it passed by way too quickly. I’ll be back there, not least as it’s so close to our office but also to see if they’ll accept some of the computer history I lugged over with me on my move from the UK. I have a few classic to add to the collection!

If you get a chance and are in the area, take time to stop by – you’ll not be disappointed.

My thanks to John Hollar and Carol Stiglic from the museum for their hospitality and to Kelly Berschauer of Microsoft Research for hosting me!