The Computer History Museum

Posted by on October 5, 2012

Today’s Geek Destination of Choice:

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA

What it is:

It’s a large museum dedicated solely to the rise of what is arguably our most important technological advance since the wheel. Exhibits follow the flow of history and have machines from every era and major turning point in the road of computing. The extensive history goes back over 2,000 years of human invention.

The Computer History Museum

The main gallery of The Computer History Museum features a timeline of computing that goes back thousands of years.

Why This Sets my Geek Heart Aflutter:

We all have our interests. Sometimes the best things are those that tickle those interests in very specific, niche ways. As one of my friends said, as he was visiting the museum, “You know me. It’s smack in the middle of the Venn Diagram between computers and history. How could I turn it down?”  If you, like him, are fascinated by giant flowcharts showing the evolution of computer languages as though they were verbal languages through the centuries, you might find this place as irresistible as he did.

Did I mention they have a working version of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine?

Babbage was this guy who decided to make mechanical computing machines back in the 1830s. There were two types of machines that he invented: the Difference Engines and the Analyical Engines. He drew out these extensive blueprints for these machines, but actually never succeeded in building a complete one. In 2002, modern engineers put together a working copy of it from his blueprints.

Incidentally, his friend Ada Lovelace wrote extensive notes discussing Babbage’s machines, including a working algorithm for his Analytical Engine. This algorithm is widely recognized as the first computer program, thereby earning Ada Lovelace the title of “First Computer Programmer,” and winning the hearts of her fellow geek girls everywhere.

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2

A demonstration of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2.

So The Computer History Museum has an actual, working Babbage Difference Engine that they do demonstrations of. It is a Difference Engine No. 2, which calculates with numbers up to 32 digits and tabulates 7th order polynomials, using a conglomeration of gears, levers and cranks totalling 8,000 parts. This thing is so ridiculously steampunk that I can’t even throw in enough uses of the words “newfangled” and “egads” and “preposterous inventiveness” to describe it.

Unfortunately, I hear it’s not on display every day, so if you are into Victorian computers made out of gears (because really, who isn’t), it might be worth a phone call to make sure you picked the right day.

Aside from the obvious attraction of the Difference Engine, the main draw, for me, would be their extensive and impressive collection of actual artifacts from every age of computing. The Internet is great at imparting information, but physical objects are still beyond the realm of what we can experience sitting at home. For example, we all know that storage has decreased in size since the days of the dinosaurs, but to be able to visually see it in person would, I think, be worth the price of admission.


Have you been there?

No. Some of my friends went on their vacation last year. I would like to see it.


How much will it cost me?

Admission prices range from free (for Members and Children) to $40 (for the Total Geek Experience package, which includes a T-shirt and other do-dads)

As always, if you don’t live in or near the Bay Area, travel and lodging have to be factored in.


Website and more information:

There is so much information at that link that I don’t even think I need to list any Wikipedia articles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *