jump to navigation

Computer History Museum July 25, 2016

Posted by flashbuzzer in History, Science.
Tags: , , , ,

I recently visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. This museum showcases the history of computing.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. The simple abacus had various native idiosyncrasies. For example, the Chinese suan pan had two beads in its upper section and five beads in its lower section. In contrast, a Korean abacus had one bead in its upper section. Furthermore, a Japanese soroban had one bead in its upper section and four beads in its lower section.

2. Punched cards were proposed by Herman Hollerith as a solution to a challenge posed by the U.S. Census Bureau before the 1890 census. They had been previously utilized by Joseph-Marie Jacquard as an essential element of the Jacquard loom for weaving. Later, they were employed by Maurice Wilkes in a landmark survey of the native flora and fauna of Great Britain.

3. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, relied on approximately 18000 vacuum tubes to perform its computations. Since these vacuum tubes had high failure rates, users of the ENIAC employed a plethora of tricks; for example, they ran the tubes well below their performance limits. When a tube did fail, a skilled technician would locate it within 15 minutes.

4. John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert capitalized on the success of the ENIAC in their development of the Universal Automatic Computer, or UNIVAC. They founded a company to manufacture the UNIVAC; this company was later acquired by Remington Rand. General Electric (GE) was one of the first entities to purchase a UNIVAC for its accounting division; after some initial setbacks, GE was able to integrate its UNIVAC with its business processes. The UNIVAC was later rendered obsolete by IBM.

5. Quipu was utilized by officials in the Incan Empire as a form of documentation; this system was based on colored cords and the precise placement of knots in these cords. Tally sticks were also used for record-keeping through 1) the precise placement of notches of varying depths in these sticks or 2) splitting a stick in half and giving the larger portion to the stock-holder in a stock transaction.

6. Seymour Cray was arguably the impetus for the rise of supercomputers. As a staunch opponent of bureaucracy, he enjoyed working in small engineering teams and would often work late at night to minimize distractions. He was particular about minimizing delay; thus, many of his products had to be meticulously hand-wired to satisfy that requirement. He also relied on fluids such as Fluorinert and Freon as coolants for his products. His final product, the Cray-3, flopped – due to its reliance on unproven gallium arsenide technology.

7. The Chalk River Laboratories worked with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to develop a computing device that could control one of its reactors. In the process, DEC engineers Gordon Bell and Edson de Castro designed a landmark device – the PDP-8, which was the first commercially viable minicomputer. The PDP-8 relied on flip chip technology, where a machine automatically wired connectors on the back of a panel containing various components.

8. Vacuum tubes acted as digital logic components in early computing devices; when a filament (cathode) was heated, current would pass through a grid and strike a plate (anode). They were superseded by transistors. John Bardeen and Walter Brattain developed the first transistor – two gold contacts on a sliver of germanium. Texas Instruments then played a pivotal role in an industry-wide shift from germanium-based transistors to silicon-based transistors by touting the robustness to temperature of silicon.

9. The University of Utah played a pivotal role in the rise of computer graphics. For example, Martin Newell used a simple teapot to show how a wireframe mesh could divide a three-dimensional object into sections of (roughly) constant smoothness. Also, Ivan Sutherland allowed his students to create a wireframe mesh model of his car and apply polygonal shading to it. In addition, Utah alumni have founded several leading graphics companies, including Silicon Graphics and Pixar.

10. The Simon Personal Communicator was developed by IBM and BellSouth as the first smartphone. Users could place calls, organize their contacts, and send e-mails with that device; it flopped, though. Other early smartphones included the Nokia Communicator, which allowed users to browse the Web.

The museum featured an impressive array of exhibits and artifacts, including a wooden optical mouse that had been donated by Donald Knuth, a copy of a pamphlet of IBM “company songs” that extolled the virtues of Thomas Watson, and a Google server from 1999. I also enjoyed perusing the explanations of devices such as Napier’s bones and slide rules.

I should note that the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics section was a bit sparse; hopefully it will be upgraded soon.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend it to those who happen to be in the Bay Area.



No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: