Recording the history of computers online
This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 5, 2004
There is probably never been a human industry so poor at preserving its own history as the computer industry.
There are aerospace and automotive museums dotting the landscape; museums devoted to technology of all stripes. Yet while nearly every major city or region in the United States has a decent art, history and/or science museum, there remain only two museums dedicated to computers the Computer Museum of America here in San Diego, and the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.
And the Boston Computer Museum went bankrupt a few years back!
While there are all kinds of explanations for this dearth of physical museums dedicated to preserving our digital heritage, online there are dozens, nay hundreds, of virtual museums that are documenting the Digital Age.
Starting with the obvious
The two obvious spots are the Web sites associated with the physical museums.
The Computer Museum of America can be found online at www.computer-museum.org. There are about a dozen artifacts that are featured with online exhibits, plus a history of the personal computer (curated and designed by yours truly). The museum's affiliated Computer Hall of Fame has biographies on the roughly two dozen honorees.
The Computer History Museum's site is at www.computerhistory.org. The best feature here is the timeline, inherited from the old Boston Computer Museum. (The Computer History Museum started out as the West Coast campus of the Computer Museum.)
But neither Web site is exhaustive nor encyclopedic, and so we move on.
The hobbyists take the lead
What's interesting is how many individuals now run their own "virtual" museums. There are literally thousands of sites out there purporting to document the computer age. Some of them are quite good, some are fairly poor. Most are focused on the owner/publisher's particular passion say the Sinclair line of home computers from the 1980s. Not all of them are academic in nature some sell or trade items from their collections.
But what they do offer is a tremendous resource for those looking for information on computer history. The photographs of historic machines are particularly useful.
Hal Layer's Mind Machine Museum is one of the best online computer museums. His virtual collection includes photographs and technical details on literally hundreds of computers, calculators and other affiliated items.
Tom Carlson runs a site called the Obsolete Computer Museum. He has nearly as many artifacts documented as Layer, and enhances his virtual collection with an area for each display that lets visitors add their own bits of information about any particular piece.
OldComputers.com claims to be the largest of the online museums. With 819 systems documented, it is certainly one of the more extensive sites.
Hailing from Great Britain, the Binary Dinosaurs site covers both game consoles and computers, and is focused primarily on home systems not much if anything on mainframes or minicomputers here.
From Germany comes the Home Computer Museum. It seems to be all in English, and has one of the largest virtual inventories with a nearly exhaustive list of all personal computers ever sold.
Also in Germany is the 8-bit Museum, covering the early years of personal computing and video games. While it is nearly all in German, you can still find your way around and the photographs are informative in any language.
If your Italian is up to snuff, you might want to visit www.computermuseum.it. It is, like most of the sites here, focused primarily on the era of personal or home computers (the 1970s on up).
The Classic Home Video Games Museum is aimed more at the videogame consoles than home computers, but covers a lot of the same territory. And in the early years of personal computing (the mid- to late 1970s), there was a lot of overlap going on.
The International Arcade Museum moves off into the world of coin-operated games. There are almost 13,000 different machines on virtual display here, many of them predating the digital age, however. Still, the screen captures of the different games are a nice reminder of the gameplay these systems provided.
Videotopia is a traveling exhibit of early electronic arcade games including Nolan Bushnell's pre-Atari game, Computer Space. If you hunt around the home page, you can find a link to their online exhibit (or type www.videotopia.com/control.htm into your browser).
This column could easily have been twice as long; once you start looking online, most of these sites link to one another or other digital preservation sites, so finding more info isn't hard. As mentioned, many of the sites are more hobbyist than professional so not all of the information is necessarily accurate.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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