Virtual museums document digital age
How do you best preserve the history of an industry whose latest products are perpetually obsolete before the next incarnation even hits the retail shelves?
Digitally, of course.
While there are only a handful of traditional museums (with building, curators, gift shop) dedicated to computers, on the Internet there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of virtual museums ranging from Web sites hosted by the established Boston Computer Museum and Computer Museum of America (in San Diego) to small, specialized private collections.
David Weil, curator of the Computer Museum of America (which allows visitors to sit down and actually use historic machines in running order), says that virtual museums and physical museums complement each other.
"The advantage (of an online museum) is you don't have to go anywhere. You have access to a great deal of information and images without having to leave your home. The disadvantage is you don't really get the full experience of being in a museum and being able to interact with the exhibits."
But if you don't live near a computer museum, you can't visit them in person, either. All you need to visit the virtual museums is an Internet account and a Web browser.
A good place to start checking out online computer history is with the established museums. The Boston Computer Museum's site (http://www.tcm.org) is what you would expect: slick, solid, entertaining and professional. The online computer history section is particularly good, especially the timeline with its photographs of historic equipment and innovators. It is the best online museum I have found in more than a year of browsing such sites although even at the Boston Computer Museum's site there were broken links, like the missing photo on the Pong page.
Almost as good as the Boston Computer Museum's site is the one by the Charles Babbage Institute. Here you find a virtual Cray and Control Data museum (for supercomputer buffs), the Burroughs virtual collection (dig the horn-rim specs on the technicians in the '50s-era photos), a list of computer museums (no links to Web sites, unfortunately) and a photo essay on the ENIAC computer (very cool).
The Computer Museum of America site is much less impressive, perhaps because its much newer. There are only 16 pieces of equipment featured on the site, compared with hundreds for Boston's. It's a site with a lot of potential but that potential is far from realized.
Less polished but often more interesting are the hundreds of personal online virtual museums. While you sometimes have to hunt around the search engines to find these (try typing in something rare, like Scelbi or Altair or even Sinclair to bring up likely Web sites), each site will usually have at least a handful of links to other online collections. And what these private collections also have is photos and info on rare machines not always in the larger museums.
Representative of the private sites is the Mind Machine Museum, run by Hal Layer. He has dozens of rare computers on this site, with photos and background info.
The Obsolete Computer Museum the brainchild and passion of Tom Carlson features one of the most complete online collections of Apple, Atari, Commodore and Radio Shack computers around. He has photos for about half the computers, and since many of the computers are in other people's personal collections, he has access to a far larger number of machines than most private museums.
Doug Coward's Museum of Personal Computing Machinery is nearly as comprehensive (ever hear of an Apricot F10?), has photos of most machines, and a nice set of links to other online museums.
And while not a museum, the Web site for the International Conference on the History of Computing has some neat info on real early computers, like ENIAC and the Mark I.
There is also a Vintage Computer Festival in Central California where folks gather each summer to display their vintage machines and hear industry pioneers talk.
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