As a blazing Big Data sun rises above our modern technological horizon, you can find an oasis of respite in Montana’s Big Sky country while discovering how all those baby bits and bytes began…
Bozeman’s Museum of Modern Human Progress (aka American Computer Museum) is a curious melange of historic recording, counting, computing and communication devices, with eclectic diversions across Cro-Magnon cave wall art, a pre-Christ analog computer replica, and an original 1623 first edition of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’.
The museum’s mission is to “preserve and present the stories and artifacts of the Information Age” – which, according to Museum curators, goes back a whole lot further than I ever imagined. I’m still scratching my head after viewing original, eloquently written 13th century manuscripts just down the hall from a first-generation 1978 ‘Simon’ electronic memory game. Seems new wave music group DEVO may have foretold the future with their theory of de-evolution.
Founded in 1990 by Barbara and George Keremedjiev after nearly settling in Princeton, New Jersey, their neatly converted office and hallway spaces showcase a simply displayed, though noticeably gapped history of computing and communications via simple printed graphics and several dozen reproductions alongside an impressive array of original physical artifacts. Much to their credit, Washington DC’s Smithsonian has loaned the Museum several world-class artifacts such as an early Apollo spacecraft guidance computer.
Peppered around the walls are fascinating written tidbits and revelations such as why today’s text messages have to be so short…
- In 1985 Friedhelm Hillebrand recognized most written notes and sentences contained fewer than 160 characters – and postcards less than 150. Back then limited cellular technology demanded data transmission restraints so Hillebrand’s Global System for Mobile Communications technical team established the SMS (Short Message Service) texting standard of 160 characters.
Ever wonder what the first email was? You’ll find it clearly explained on a wall panel; simply “QWERTYUIOP”
My favorite golden oldie in their private collection was an original 1976 Apple 1 circuit board (complete with plug-in integrated circuits) donated by the Woz himself; former Hewlett-Packard employee Steve Wozniak – one of only 200 originals personally designed by him.
The Apple 1 MOS 6502 processor ran at 1 MHz, supported an external 280 x 192 TV display (HD video is 1920 x 1080) and sported a standard memory of 4 KB. An average email is 12 KB.
When the first Apple customers needed technical support, it was Woz who personally answered the phone since Steve Jobs didn’t understand the inner workings of the circuit board.
There’s even a compact cassette tape beside the emerald green Apple 1 board which stored the equivalent of today’s operating system; loaded into the fledgling circuitry by hitting ‘Play’ on an external deck. Guess you could say the process booted up OS 1.0.
The lack of touch-screen interactive video displays in the Museum is refreshing highlight. At this small northwestern museum we get to view and move intimately close to real hardware without over-the-top LCD flat panel animations and perfectly photographed talking heads. The information here is wonderfully raw – with a surprising few artifacts protected behind acrylic panels. As such there’s even an occasional whiff of archaic electronics, which fondly brought back my youthful days of scrounging knee deep through southern California aerospace salvage yards.
The leader in presenting the computing past is Mountain View, California’s Computer History Museum, which subsequently opened in 1996. I’ve been through their beautiful and extensive ‘Revolution’ exhibition – funded by Silicon Valley’s individual and corporate trailblazers, however the charm of Bozeman’s smaller, affordable (i.e. free) offerings – with the passion and personal attention of Educational Program Manager Barbara Keremedjiev – certainly makes the American Computer Museum worth a visit on your way to nearby summer ranches, winter ski slopes or the awe inspiring Yellowstone National Park – only a couple of hours away.
The “donations welcomed” Museum is located on the south edge of the Montana State University campus in a professional office complex. And as you’d expect in friendly south-central Montana; there’s plenty of free parking!
• STEVE & STEVE
History and origins of the Apple Computer Company highlighting Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, early products, related artifacts, documents and photos.
• 1,700 YEARS OF WOMEN IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Original documents and autographed items from Marie-Anne Lavoisier, Ada Lovelace, Marie Currie, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Sally Ride and others.
• WIRED AND WIRELESS COMMUNICATION
A WWII Handie-Talkie, early radios and televisions including the first TV remote control (1956), first edition writings by Michael Faraday, Heinrich Hertz, James Maxwell and Guglielmo Marconi. Early wireless devices by Motorola, Radio Shack, IBM, Nokia, along with the nearly forgotten 1993 Apple iPhone predecessor; the stylus driven Newton.
• TEXTING: BABYLONIANS THROUGH THE TELEGRAPH
Original Sumerian/Babylonian clay tablets (>4,500 years old), an Antikythera Mechanism… the first computer dating back to 80 B.C.E. and the only reconstruction of its type on public display in the western hemisphere, a full-scale Gutenberg printing press replica accompanied by 500+ year old printed documents, Bell Laboratory reconstructions of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone together with rare early telephones and switchboards.
• HISTORY OF INTERNET HARDWARE
Original Benjamin Franklin-commissioned static electricity machine, an early electric battery known as the Volta Pile, original handwritten Samuel Morse documents regarding installation of the first telegraph line, Pony Express items including a mail pouch and Civil War telegrams to/from the White House.
• FOUR GENERATIONS OF COMPUTERS
Relays, vacuum tubes, transistors and chips. First commercial computer (1949), a Minuteman 1 missile computer (1962), the PDP-8 (first desktop computer, 1965), an Apollo moon mission navigation computer (1967), a watch worn on the moon by Apollo 15 Commander David Scott.
• PERSONAL COMPUTERS AND VIDEO GAMES
See a hand-made aluminum switchbox hand written with ‘ping pong’ on the front face, preceding the fledgling commercial video game ‘Pong’.
• WEAVING LOOMS TO PUNCHED CARD TO SOFTWARE
Evolution of Jacquard loom methods to the mechano-calculating work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace through to IBM punch card systems. An Ed Roberts circuit board and Bill Gates original mid-1970’s programming artifacts; the start of Microsoft.
- Original publications and papers of Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon and Grace Hopper.
- The Norden Bombsight (WWII), the ABC Computer (Atanasoff/Berry) and assorted ENIAC components.
MUSEUM OF MODERN HUMAN PROGRESS / American Computer Museum
2023 Stadium Drive
Bozeman, MT 59715