Saving Computer History

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

Saving Computer History

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The old saying is that “those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Does that apply to computer science and information technology? Oh yes it does. Well I think it does. Look at today’s use of “thin clients” connected to servers. Is that very different from block mode terminals connected to large mainframes? Some but not a lot. That is not intrinsically a bad thing but it certainly is useful and instructive to look at the issues and solutions that were current with those earlier systems. And yet how much do we really teach today’s students about the history of computers and computer science? Do we talk about Babbage and then jump to the PC age? Or do we fill in the blanks?

One of my favorite places to visit is the Computer History Museum in silicon valley. It’s actually only a short walk from Microsoft’s Silicon valley research facility. The past and the future reside close physically in that location. I think they need to be a bit closer in our minds sometimes as well. There are a lot of online resources at the Computer History Museum website by the way. Potentially very useful stuff even if you can’t visit in person.

The year 1975 was something of a turning point in computer history BTW. Not because I graduated college that year though I think I was fortunate to stat my career at that time. That was probably the real start of the PC age. (I like the overview here that is part of the Computer History Museum’s timeline). As more and more people got into the field and the number of computers increased (along with the decrease in size and cost) more people started saving things of potentially historic value. Or so I tell my wife about the punch cards, mag tapes and old TRS-80 in my attic. In fact most of the computer museums have pretty much stopped accepting items from later than 1975 into there collections. But was are still losing valuable pieces of computer history from before that time.

Bletchley Park is one such piece of history. This was the place where the Allies worked on breaking Nazi codes during World War II. And yes, computers were an important part of that effort. People like Alan Turing who is often thought of as the father of modern computer science and after whom computer science’s more prestigious award is named worked there during the war. The rebuilt Colossus machine is there as are the Bombe machines that were used to break the Enigma code. Recently PGP (the cryptography and security company) and IBM announced a fund raising program to build an endowment to preserve Bletchley Park.

All too often in the past, in part because of the room early computers took up and the expense of maintaining them, computers that became obsolete were destroyed or discarded. There is one computer in the Computer History Museum that actually has bullet holes in it because someone used it for target practice after it was discarded in a field. We probably have enough interest today to save modern samples as they are passed over but I think we, as a society and as an industry, should be working to save some of the older items before they are gone for good. And one could argue that the importance of the work at Bletchley Park has been too long hidden and ignored. It would be good for the rest of society to understand how mathematicians and computer scientists made a big difference in a world changing war. That lesson may be valuable in the future.

  • I LOVE the Computer History Museum. I've been there for many talks, and I've toured the old computers room several times.

    One of my best experiences there was meeting Spacewar! creator Steve Russell.

    When I'm there and see famous people, I often go and introduce myself and say hello, and thank them for their contributions. I had a great chat with Donald Knuth once, about a programming problem. He made some notes in my notebook, which I saved. Douglas Engelbart was very nice when I met him. When I use HTTPS now, I think of Diffie-Hellman key exchange, and how I met Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman at the Computer History Museum.

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