On the Sunday before my flight home from SF last week I embraced my inner geek and went to The Computer History Museum just off 101 in Mountain view. I thought would just be a dusty ware house full of broken down electronics but it turned out to be a bright modern facility with a wonderful collection of exhibits. Tracking the history of computers from mechanical through valve electronics to integrated circuits and beyond this collection shows the rapidly evolution computing has gone through in the last 150 years. As expected most of the exhibits are from the last 30-50 years being the time when innovation and evolution has driven computers from frames of code braking valves to slivers of hot silicon.
On the mechanical side the most impressive exhibit is the Babbage difference engine No2. Designed in 1850s by English eccentric and inventor Charles Babbage but only built in 2005 on commission at the London Science museum this mechanical calculating engine, is an impressive 5 Tons and measures aprox 3 meters wide by 2 meters tall. The mechanical intricacy was designed to remove the production errors discovered in the printed books of tables used for calculations. Programable by use of cam wheels and initial settings the machine used alternating columns of number wheels to generate logarithmic tables. If the innovation of automatic calculation was not enough the machine includes a printer to remove the transcription errors normally found in the results to page process.
On the electronic side of computing, I had one of those "You know your getting old moments" when in the supercomputer area I saw the Cray-2 on display. I saw one of these machine from the late 80s in service when I visited the Royal Aeronautical Establishment in Farnborough. The Cray-2 introduced the twin innovations of total liquid immersion cooling and a huge memory. Used for the first effective computational fluid dynamics these systems helped evolve aeronautical wing and hull designs. I had the privilege of working on high performance Cray machine during the 90's but few of those machines had the charisma of the early Cray-1 & Cray-2 on display here.
Further on round the exhibits the smaller machines dominate with personal computer, games consoles, mobile computing and internet related items.
Overall a great place to spend a few hours immersed in the stream of innovations that comprises the history of computers. When planning a visit be sure to check that you will be able to see a demo of the Babbage difference engine for a truly inspirational sight.