Strolling Down Memory (Core) Lane

Museums and online resources help preserve computing history

I had very mixed feelings the first time I saw computer technology I'd used in my career exhibited as museum artifacts. And I had a similar reaction to seeing mainframe genealogy ("System/360 begat ...") in computer history books. 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. (Remember 25MB 2314 disk packs, giant 100MB 3330s and timesharing mainframes with half-megabyte memory?) At the same time, newcomers often lack the perspective to understand how things originated and why the computing world looks the way it does.

So it’s interesting and instructive touring real-world and virtual computing museums, lovingly created and maintained by generations of professionals—many of whom designed, built and used the equipment written about and shown.

But where to start? Searching yields about 407,000 website hits.

Of course, adding keywords such as "mainframe" and "IBM" winnows results to only 127,000 and 66,000, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the first general search result is the Computer History Museum. Organized in the 1960s to exhibit Gordon and Gwen Bell's personal technology collection in Digital Equipment Corp.'s Boston lobby, it’s now housed in a multi-million dollar showplace in Mountain View, Calif. Its website offers a wealth of overview and in-depth reading material. Exhibits include technology "prehistory;” modern computer origins, development and history; game playing; system restoration; and seminal industry contributors recognized as Museum Fellows, including Konrad Zuse and IBMers Fran Allen, Erich Bloch, Gene Amdahl and Bob Evans.

A major new exhibit, "Revolution: The First 2,000 Years of Computing," includes a mainframe gallery, based around an IBM System/360 Model 30 CPU and showing three 2411 magnetic tape drives and a 1311 disk drive. In short, it's a typical smallish System/360 installation. A small display also describes System/360 solid logic technology (SLT)—halfway between integrated circuits and transistors, chosen when integrated circuits weren’t quite mature enough to use on a large scale and transistors were already "old tech." Searching the online Revolution exhibit for mainframes yields more than 60 hits. The main System/360 story is here.

Further north along the West Coast, another museum has a different orientation: presenting major historic computing technologies in action, showing how people used them. Founded by Microsoft's Paul Allen, The Living Computer Museum in Seattle includes such blinky-light wonders as Princeton University's huge System/360 Model 91 console panel. Real old-timers can try their hands and test their memories working on an IBM sorter and keypunch, and try to convince relatives that these were once mainstream computing technology. Non-IBM computers include DEC’s PDP-7/8/10KI/11, Sigma 9 and Unisys V380.

Many museums cover the whole computing spectrum, exhibiting different amounts of mainframe history and technology. A bit off the beaten path is the American Computer and Robotics Museum in Bozeman, Mont., describing itself as "The world's oldest continually operating museum of its kind" and "Inch for inch, the best museum in the world."

In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution—nicknamed "The Nation's Attic”—of course has computing resources. An online COBOL exhibition lets you "learn about COBOL, or Common Business Oriented Language, one of the first computer-programming languages to run successfully on different brands of computers.” The Computer History Collection includes artifacts related to producing, collecting, modifying, manipulating and using information in modern American society, with two dozen mainframe computers or components. There's plenty more to be nostalgic about, including 100 peripherals, 1,000 electronic components and 450 electronic calculators. Plus 150 cubic feet of documentation—which sounds like less than what I had to move whenever I changed programming jobs!

Overseas are several museums in Germany, where many computers and related technologies originated, and where IBM has for decades had major development and manufacturing facilities. Stuttgart has Computermuseum der Fakultat Informatik, which includes a 4331 Model 2 complete with at least a few of its manuals.

Not far from Stuttgart, there's indeed history galore was exhibited at the IBM museum in Sindelfingen. Unfortunately, it’s moved to IBM’s Boeblingen Lab where they’re building a new exhibit, but focus has changed and the primary audience is IBM customers. So it’s not open to the public.

The Heinz Nixdorf Museums Forum in Paderborn, Germany, is billed as the world's largest computer museum. In more than 6,000 square meters of floor space, it depicts the 5,000-year history, present and future of information technology, from origins of numbers and characters in 3000 B.C. to the 21st century computer age. The museum's depth is shown by having separate curators for areas such as "punched card technology, PCs and media history" and "typing machines, office technique, German computers and Nixdorf.” While it surprisingly has no IBM mainframes, it features original ENIAC components, two Zuse devices (Z11 and Z23) and a Cray 2.

IBM itself has a few historic information resources, found by searching IBM.

Endicott, N.Y.—where IBM and many technologies/products originated—is represented by its Visitors Center. While not tech-centric, it includes the Thomas J. Watson-IBM room which examines his professional career and development of IBM.

The Rhode Island Computer Museum has a diverse collection (from Apollo Jabba to Wang Peripherals) but not many mainframe or IBM items.

Some museums specialize, such as the Computer Graphics Museum in Salt Lake City, though, i’s presence is still largely online. I'd love to see an IBM 2250 Graphics Display Unit, something I battled with supporting under VM/CMS.

A group called Mid-Atlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists runs a museum in Wall Township, N.J., with five exhibits: mainframes, minicomputers, homebrew-era computers, business microcomputers and consumer microcomputers.

For more online resources, there’s a list of physical and virtual computer museums.

Yahoo's directory lists about a dozen computer exhibits.

Wikipedia describes and lists various museum categories: online, North American, European, Latin American, Middle East and Oceania, along with further reading.

Many online communities exist for reminiscing and chatting about bygone systems; two such lists are here.

Researching this article tempted me to join multiple museums, but I'll content myself with mapping their locations and attempting to connect the dots by visiting as many of them as possible. Perhaps I'll log equipment and systems found on which I worked.

Much has been written on computing's origins and evolution. Two books essential for mainframers are “IBM's Early Computers” and especially “IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems.”

Sometimes museums are found in surprising places. I describe a friend's home as being decorated in "early mainframe,” since he's tastefully placed various mainframe components—large I/O devices and controllers and such, not mere circuit boards or control panels—in rooms and hallways. They made me feel nostalgic, since I'd used and worked on many of them. My wife was less impressed, calling the house a computer mausoleum, proving that one person's interesting museum is another's ... well, let's not call it that. So check out the worldwide assortment of tributes to computing technologies we've all used which shaped today's world. And explore the computing world's diversity; browse a bit beyond System/360 and its descendants to see how others have computed.

This article first appeared on destinationz and is used with the author's permission. Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades.