Monday, August 18, 2008

Spare Parts Store

My other tourist stop in Northern California required a visit to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. (I, of course, also had to stop by the corporate headquarters of Google while I was there.) My primary destination was the model of the Babbage Difference Engine, which I had seen on video here.

The heart of the collection centered on the collection of old computers in its Visible Storage exhibit. As a feminist who has written about gender and computing, I appreciated seeing the prototype of what Julia and Ellen Lupton have characterized as an early "computer in the kitchen." The museum explains in its caption, however, that not a single one of the $10,000 kitchen computers advertised in the 1969 Neiman Marcus catalog was ever sold, partly because the interface was apparently so user-unfriendly.

If I had a criticism to make of their museum curation, it would be the tendency to emphasize a history of male accomplishment while ignoring the role that large staffs of exclusively female operators and often programmers played, particularly during the war era for targeting computers, such as the one depicted below.

Graphics software pioneer Peter Samson (shown above, next to a tray taken from the original Google server system) was our host for the afternoon. He argued that -- like radio for a previous generation of consumers -- kit technology that appealed to DIY enthusiasts was critical for eventual large-scale adoption of digital computers, as this early Apple computer indicates.

Samson also emphasized the ironies of the way that innovations in human-computer interaction that were developed at Xerox PARC were traded away in characteristic "fumbling the future" style for the corporation, even though they produced models with document-friendly screens and mouse technologies, such as on the system below. (As regular readers know, my father was a Senior Systems Analyst at Xerox for decades and a witness to these debacles. Sadly my early Xerox 820 personal computer wasn't on display in the museum.)

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