A Guided Tour of Computing History

Steve Wozniak with George Stibitz's one-bit computer from 1936

Steve Wozniak with George Stibitz's one-bit computer from 1936

On January 13th, the seven-year-old Computer History Museum will open its first truly full-blown permanent exhibit:, the 25,000-square-foot, $19 million "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing." It's been a long time in the making: It features a spectacular collection of computers and related apparatus begun by DEC founder Ken Olsen and computing legend Gordon Bell back in the mid-1970s, which spent some time at Boston's now-defunct Computer Museum before making its way to its current home in Mountain View, California, within walking distance of the Googleplex.

The museum invited reporters for a sneak peek of the new exhibit this morning, and while it's a work in progress -- we saw mainframes still wrapped, Christo-style, in protective plastic wrap -- it was a remarkable experience. Part of what made it remarkable was our guide, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.

Being led by Woz (who was assisted by curator Chris Garcia) around a computer museum was a bit like touring the Holy Land with Moses. He seemed to have a personal story about programming nearly every historic machine we saw, and his excitement over the nerdy joys of engineering, code, and just plain liking gadgets was infectious.

How much did Woz love computers, back when he was growing up and both computers and information about them weren't exactly plentiful? He used to break into the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center with a friend, where they'd secretly read computer magazines and order manuals from companies who advertised in the mags.

Herewith, some highlights of the tour -- which included only a fraction of the wealth of stuff in the exhibit.

Here's Herman Hollerith's punch-card tabulating machine designed for the 1890 census -- a predecessor of modern computers, and the product of a company that, after several mergers, evolved into IBM.

In this photo, Woz checks out a jumbo-sized IBM hard drive system from the 1950s -- he said he was proud that both he and the hard disk hailed from San Jose (and even mentioned the street address where hard drives were invented: 99 Notre Dame Ave.).

When I asked Woz about computers he admired, the first one he mentioned was Data General's 1969 Nova, an early single-board minicomputer. (Again and again, he came back to praising engineering minimalism -- accomplishing a task with the fewest possible parts and the simplest possible code.) He said that he wanted a Nova more than anything else in the world, and when his father asked him how he'd pay for a $4000 computer he said he'd live in an apartment rather than a house. (He didn't get the Nova, but its elegance influenced his Apple I and II designs.)

An amazing, massive 1960s Honeywell console, looking like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Someone reasonably asked Woz if it influenced the Apple II. Nope, he said -- that machine's look was more influenced by an IBM Selectric typewriter.

Woz also waxed enthusiastic over Atari's original Pong coin-op game. When he first saw it, he did what any self-respecting genius would do: He went home and built one of his own that he played on his own TV. (He also eventually designed Atari's Breakout, although the final version wasn't based on his engineering.)

The museum has one of two functioning replicas of Charles Babbage's legendary unbuilt, hand-cranked 19th-century computing machine, the Difference Engine No. 2.

While Woz's tour was deeply personal, it was hardly self-promoting: He spent several minutes standing at a homebrew computer before he mentioned it was an Apple I. (His goal with the I, he said, was to build a computer that was as easy to use as a calculator.)

He was about to stroll right by an Apple II without stopping when Robert Scoble asked him to pose with it. Woz not only posed, but popped the top off the II -- and the sight of him with an open Apple II is as neat a visual summary of the joy of personal technology as anything I've ever witnessed.

If you can get to Mountain View, you need to see Revolution. If you can't, that's okay: The museum says it's going to put a digital version of the exhibit on its site, including everything from the real-world version, plus even more.

Related: Video Tours of the Computer History Museum

Save DOS! The Greatest OS Fondly Remembered

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine: The First Computer

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