The early roots of computing go back hundreds of years, to devices like the abacus in ancient China and the Jacquard loom in the nineteenth century. With the development of general-purpose computing machines in the middle of the twentieth century, computer science became recognized as a distinct scientific discipline. The field grew at a phenomenal rate from 1950 to the present.
Not surprisingly, there are many ‘virtual’ computer science museums on the internet. Only in the last twenty years or so have actual physical museums been established to preserve the history of computer science.
These are some of the best museums in the U.S. which are dedicated to the history of computers.
The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California
The Computer History Museum opened in 2003 in Mountain View, California, which is in the heart of Silicon Valley. The goal of the museum is to preserve artifacts of the information age and to explore the impact of the computing revolution on human experience. The museum grew from a collection of artifacts belonging to Gordon Bell which had formerly been displayed at the now-closed Computer Museum in Boston and in the lobby of Digital Equipment Corporation.
The Computer History Museum currently has three main exhibits: Visible Storage, Mastering the Game, and Innovation 101. Mastering the Game focuses on the history of computer chess. This year, a model of Babbage’s Difference Engine made its debut. This computing device was designed by Charles Babbage in the Victorian era but never constructed in his lifetime.
An important exhibit titled “Timeline of Computing History” is scheduled to open in 2009. The museum also offers lectures, seminars and workshops, many taught by pioneers in the computing industry. In addition, the museum website has informational pages about the history of computing.
American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Montana
If you happen to be in Bozeman, don’t miss what is billed as the world’s oldest continually operating museum dedicated to the history of the Information Age. In operation since 1990, this museum displays more than 1000 computing artifacts presented in a timeline fashion in a 6000 square foot space.
According to the American Computer Museum’s website, Bozeman was chosen as a location due to its proximity to tourist destinations like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. The admission price is low, and the collection is advertised as appealing to both novice and experts in the computing field. This museum sounds like a great way to visually experience the breadth of history leading up to the Information Age.
Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts
Most of the exhibits which once made up The Computer Museum in Boston were moved to California to be part of the Computer History Museum. What remained was moved to the Museum of Science in Boston, where two exhibit areas center on computers and technology.
The Computing Revolution uses hands-on interactive exhibits to illustrate the history of computing. Cahners ComputerPlace, which the museum calls “your portal to the digital world”, uses computers and software to allow visitor to experience computers as tools for creativity and learning. A team of staff and volunteers are on hand to help with the interactive experience.
The Museum of Science has several other outstanding exhibits which will be enjoyed by anyone interested in computers. The Theater of Electricity contains one of the world’s largest Van de Graaff generators. Two fifteen foot aluminum spheres generate up to 2 million volts in an awesome display of static electricity. The museum also houses an IMAX theater and a planetarium which features a laser light show.