Even nontechies would enjoy this computer museum : Editor’s Notebook

We at the Town Crier spent the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday touring the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, of all places. It was the idea of our publishers, Paul and Liz Nyberg, to give their staff a run-through on the history of the area in which we do business.

I found it amazing. And this comes from someone who is right-brain oriented, more comfortable with the randomness of words than with logic and patterns of binary numbers. Two things struck me as we toured the 25,000-square-foot “Revolution” exhibit: One, that high-tech innovation goes much further back – and beyond – “Silicon Valley,” which the Santa Clara Valley was dubbed back in the early 1970s; and, two, that the history of computers is more complex than you could possibly imagine. The museum does a wonderful job of explaining this challenging story from both narrative and visual standpoints.

There were some brilliant minds at work way back when, creating the concepts and tools that make us what we are today.

You really get that feeling when you hear the story of Herman Hollerith, a gentleman in the 19th century who created the punch-card system as a way to better tabulate information for the U.S. Census. The invention paved the way for a system that was used for decades and was a springboard to the rise of IBM.

How about Jay Monroe’s groundbreaking four-function calculator, followed by the first fully automated one from Howard Aiken, which helped with the design of the atomic bomb? We learned about the founders of contemporary computers, not attributable to one source such as Thomas Edison and the electric light bulb, but to more than a dozen contenders.

Although today’s techies might snicker over the masses of tubes, exposed wires and enormous sizes of computers from yesteryear, there’s no denying the innovation and enormous intelligence that was every bit as astounding as what’s coming from modern-day innovators.

What’s also interesting is that – as our guide Lyle Bickely pointed out – computer history is messy. There’s no clear timeline on innovations. In fact, several inventions were evolving at the same time. And just when you think you’ve pinpointed a particular invention and innovator, you can find someone else who was there five years before.

The recent biography of Apple founder (and former Los Altos resident) Steve Jobs pointed to Jobs’ obsession with the inside of a computer looking as good as the outside. But this approach wasn’t new either – the brilliant and colorful Seymour Cray of Cray Research Inc. was already at it in the early 1970s.

Patents given in 1964 to one set of computer innovators, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, were revoked when lawyers for competitor Honeywell proved their work had been inspired by an earlier pioneer.

Tech history is full of surprises – and reminders. One realizes that Silicon Valley didn’t just happen in the 1970s – this area’s tech innovations go back to Hewlett-Packard in 1930s, Fairchild and Lockheed in the 1950s and IBM in the 1960s. While not ancient, the South Bay’s tech legacy dates back more than 70 years.

Take it from this nontechie – you won’t be bored catching a tour of this fabulous museum. You’ll discover much you didn’t know about your own backyard.

For more information on the Computer History Museum, visit www.computerhistory.org.

Bruce Barton is editor-in-chief of the Town Crier.

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