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2000 Years of Computing History at a Museum in California

Senior curator Dag Spicer looks at a replica of the first transistor at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California
Senior curator Dag Spicer looks at a replica of the first transistor at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California

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This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

Silicon Valley in Northern California is home to many of the world’s largest technology companies. These include Apple, Google, Oracle, Intel, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard.

The valley is also home to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It reopened last month after nineteen million dollars worth of improvements. The project took nearly two years.

One of the additions is a permanent exhibit called "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing."

Alex Bochannek is a curator at the museum. Mr. Bochannek says the new exhibit tells the story of more than one thousand historical objects.

ALEX BOCHANNEK: "Some of the oldest items are actually not computers. They are devices that helped people calculate. And the first object people see walking into the exhibit is an abacus from the eighteen hundreds. Because the abacus is a daily-use device made from wood, few of them have survived.”

Mr. Bochannek says people have the chance to handle some of the objects in the exhibit. He says one of the more popular items is a portable computer from nineteen eighty-one.

ALEX BOCHANNEK: “We think of portable computers today as laptops. But the Osborne One was about the size of a sewing machine and weighed twenty-four pounds. So, just being able to pick one of those up will help our visitors understand how difficult portability was about thirty years ago.”

Visitors to the Computer History Museum can also see parts of one of the earliest large-scale electronic computing devices. The ENIAC or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was designed during World War Two.

There are also pieces from the guidance computer that was used during the Apollo space missions.

Mr. Bochannek says the "Revolution" exhibit is about more than the history of modern computing. He says it tells a much larger story about how these developments have affected society and culture, especially in recent years.

ALEX BOCHANNEK: "The revolution to most people is that computers today are ubiquitous. They’re everywhere. If you are crossing at a traffic light, there probably is a computer controlling that traffic light. It’s not just the laptop or your smartphone that has a computer in it, but they surround us, and in some cases are even inside us. Like the cardiac pacemaker, one of which we show on the exhibition as well."

The Computer History Museum plans to launch an online version of the exhibit in March. The museum has one hundred thousand items in its complete collection. Only two percent of them are currently on display. But officials say seventy-five percent of the items will be viewable online.

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. Tell us about your interests at I'm Christopher Cruise.