The tale of two high-tech museums

By September 17, 2007

The Tech in San Jose offers a hands-on approach to the wonders of computers and science. In Mountain View, the Computer History Museum displays the ultimate computer family tree. Kids have a blast at The Tech. Moving big blocks a

round, they program Mr. Potato Head (If he senses heat or light, then he will turn on the TV). At another station nearby, they design a roller coaster on a computer in full accordance with the laws of physics, then get to ride their creation on a simulator. While the children enjoy many fun hands-on activities, parents can linger in the clean room where they learn, in more technical details, how silicon wafers become circuits. Both adults and children leave that section of The Tech with the clear understanding that chips are everywhere around us.   “We want middle school and high schools kids to understand how technology affects their life. How does it work? But also how does it affect me?” explains Eric, an employee at The Tech. That search for deeper implications is evident in an exhibit about genetics and the heavy burden created by the knowledge that you carry a fatal disease. Another exhibit projects future uses of wireless communication (farmers receiving information about which sections of their fields need water or elderly people being monitored by webcams) and asks visitors how comfortable they are with those scenarii. Following its mission to stay on the cutting edge, The Tech recently launched “Green by design”, an exhibit which shows how current choices affect the Earth by projecting 30 years worth of data onto a globe. In another section of the display which will be expanded to reflect the growing interest in the environment, visitors compete to get a high tower all lit up harnessing the power of wind, sun and water.   The Tech, which opened in 1998 and still functions thanks to the donations of a who’s who of the area’s high-tech companies, is on a mission to “reflect what’s special about this area and why we are the envy of the world.” Fostering a taste for innovation in the youngest visitors is the underlying hope here. As an added bonus, many retired engineers roam the museum as docents. A unique chance to tap into their first-hand experience.   Computer History Museum is full of treasures   When the Bay Area inherited the collection of the failing Boston Computer Museum, it was not quite ready for the windfall. At first, the artifacts were housed in an unheated hangar at Moffett Field where simple tours were organized while fundraising efforts could provide a better solution. Million of dollars later, the solution was buying a former Silicon Graphics building on Shoreline boulevard in Mountain View.   Today, there are 600 pieces on display in the “Visible Storage” exhibit, a chronological tour of computer history reaching back to the 1940s : a WISC computer with visible shots in it because it was rescued after being used for shooting practice, the first production server on which Google got its start 10 years ago complete with cork boards between the racks, a kitchen computer that Neiman Marcus unsuccesfully tried to market to housewifes in 1969. There is also a fully-functioning PDP-1 DEC restored to life by the former MIT students who built it in the first place. The goal is to show how phenomenal innovation has been in the last 50 years and it works.   As impressive as the pieces on exhibit are, they represent only a fraction of what the museum stores in the back, shelves after crammed shelves of equipment, software and manuals. In addition, the museum is collecting oral history from Silicon Valley innovators and engineers, it is making its collection accessible online and it is pondering the huge task of archiving the Web.   The museum, which is planning an ambitious remodel with more interactive activities, employs 40 staff and 200 volunteers. “A lot of people from the industry volunteer here. It makes everybody feel old,” jokes Allen Rosenzweig, one of the docent who can spend hours showing visitors around and telling stories.   The Tech BodyWorlds 2, a temporary exhibit, opens September 27   Computer History Museum Be aware of limited opening hours (Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from 1:00 to 4:00 pm and Saturday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm)   Isabelle Boucq, for Atelier FEEDBACK For comments on this article, email us at

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