Enigmas and code: Silicon Valley’s computer history curator shares his favourite displays


It’s been known as the geek’s Valhalla.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View the world’s largest assortment of computing artefact, boasts such improvements as ENIAC, the digital whiz; the speedy Cray-1 supercomputer; the moveable however heavy Osborne; the legendary Apple I private computer; and Enigma, the traditionally vital World War II machine used to encrypt Axis troop actions.

But consider us after we say that you do not have to be a geek’s geek to take pleasure in this museum. There’s a complete show on a teapot (the legendary curved 3-D mannequin kick-started the world of CGI). And a shrine to Pac-Man.

We tapped into the boundless enthusiasm of senior curator Dag Spicer, a former {hardware} engineer and technical author whose automotive license plate reads “TURING1” — a nod to the sensible mathematician who cracked the Enigma code — for his information to the highlights. When the museum reopens to the general public early this yr, you may be prepared.

Here’s an edited model (aka a compressed file) of our conversations:

Q. What is the oldest relic within the museum?

A. The oldest object within the assortment is a set of Napier’s Bones, a pre-computing artefact from about 1700. It is a lovely set of picket rods, with multiplication tables delicately etched on them. Using the rods, multiplication can then be decreased to addition, and division to subtraction.

Q. Which exhibit prompts the techies’ jaws to drop? And what is the jaw-dropper for non-techies?

A. There is a few overlap in astonishment issue between techies and non-techies. For instance, RAMAC — the world’s first disk drive — holds about 3.75 MB of information and is the scale of a fridge, which almost everybody finds very stunning.

For the technically inclined, I feel seeing an unique Seymour Cray design pocket book for the Cray-1 supercomputer is fairly attention-grabbing, as is the visually gorgeous Cray-1 itself, which sits proper beside it. The Cray-1 was the quickest computer on the planet for over 5 years.

Q. What do not we all know in regards to the Nazis’ Enigma and the code-breakers?

A. German navy Enigma operators used codes that had been modified at various intervals — as World War II went on, there have been incessantly a number of code adjustments per day. The Enigma methodology was largely damaged by three Polish codebreakers within the Twenties. The British constructed on their work and automated it at scale to allow helpful, pressing, large-scale enemy code-breaking.

Enigma machines are nonetheless very a lot in circulation, albeit as collector’s objects. Since their circuitry could be very easy, most nonetheless work or will be made to work. They are straightforward to function, dependable and rugged — as could be anticipated of a know-how for navy use.

Fun reality: Occasionally, contests are held to decode unique Enigma messages. A classic message is distributed out over the air by way of Morse code, and whoever can decode it first wins!

Q. Do you significantly have an essential piece of computer history that got here from a Sunnyvale bar, of all locations?

A. We do! It’s the one-of-a-kind 1972 Pong online game prototype that was first put in at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale. Two weeks after putting in it, Pong engineer Al Alcorn was requested to examine on the machine because it seemed to be damaged. Instead of being damaged, Pong’s coin field was really filled with quarters, displaying that there was a wholesome marketplace for video video games. The firm Alcorn labored for, Atari, would lead a online game revolution.

Q. Did the museum inherit something from the now-defunct Fry’s Electronics?

A. We are in dialogue with them now, really. They had been a key a part of Silicon Valley history. We hope we will protect a few of their supplies so future generations can perceive what a singular enterprise and cultural establishment they had been.

Q. Geeks might imagine paper is passé, however you may have fairly a set of paperwork. What’s one of many cool items of ephemera?

A. One of my favourites is the punched card vacation wreath made within the Sixties. IBM outlined the “IBM Card” in 1928 for its mechanical workplace tools. Cards had been made by the billions till rendered out of date by on-line enter strategies within the mid-Nineteen Seventies.

Speaking of paper, we even have one of many largest paper archives within the history of computing on the planet, with almost one linear mile of typically uncommon and distinctive paperwork from main thinkers and pioneers in computing. During COVID, we have now seen a dramatic enhance within the variety of analysis requests and individuals accessing our archives. So computer history marches on, regardless of issues. – Tribune News Service/Mercury News

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