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Computing Museums Reveal How Quickly IT Has Changed


Photos courtesy of the Computer History Museum

I had mixed feelings the first time I saw computer technology I’d used in my career exhibited as a museum artifact. While the good news is that today’s mainframes are close relatives of that first generation on which many of us grew up, it’s easy to forget how much things have changed and how far we’ve come.

Newcomers in particular may not understand the platform’s origination and why the computing world looks the way it does, so it’s interesting and instructive to tour real-world and virtual computing museums. But where do you start? Searching Google yields about 407,000 websites. Adding keywords such as “mainframe” and “IBM” winnows the results to about 127,000 and 66,000, respectively.

The No. 1 search result is the Computer History Museum www.computerhistory.org. Housed in a multimillion-dollar showplace in Mountain View, Calif., it offers a wealth of overview and in-depth material both online and in person. Its exhibits highlight many IBMers. The installation “Revolution: The First 2,000 Years of Computing” includes a mainframe gallery, based on a System/360 Model 30, while another display describes System/360 technology halfway between integrated circuits and transistors—chosen when integrated circuits were not quite mature enough to use on a large scale and transistors were already “old tech.” The main System/360 story is at computerhistory.org/revolution/mainframe-computers/7.

Worldwide Galleries

Seattle’s Living Computer Museum www.livingcomputermuseum.org presents major historic computing technologies in action, including blinky-light wonders such as Princeton University’s huge System/360 Model 91 console panel.

Germany, where many computers originated and where IBM has maintained major facilities for decades, has several museums. Stuttgart’s Computermuseum der Fakultat Informatik computermuseum.informatik.uni-stuttgart.de/index.en.html features an IBM 4331 Model 2 and an impressive assortment of other artifacts.

Endicott, N.Y., where IBM and many technologies/products originated, is represented by its Visitors Center www.endicottny .com/VCmuseum.html. Though not tech-centric, it includes the Thomas J. Watson-IBM room that chronicles the development of IBM and examines the professional career of the former IBM chairman and CEO.

In addition, many online communities exist for reminiscing and chatting about bygone systems. Two such lists can be found at www.classiccmp.org/lists.html.

Two essential books for mainframers are “IBM’s Early Computers” and “IBM’s 360 and Early 370 Systems.”

Check out these tributes to computing technologies that have shaped today’s world. Sometimes, museums can be found in the most surprising places. I describe a friend’s home as decorated in “early mainframe” since he’s tastefully placed various mainframe components—large I/O devices, controllers and such, not mere circuit boards or control panels— in rooms and hallways.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. He can be contacted at destination.z@gabegold.com.


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