In development for more than six years, the new exhibit represents the world's most comprehensive physical and online exploration of computing history, spanning everything from the abacus and slide rules to robots, Pong and the Internet.
"Many times, people coming to the museum have very basic questions: 'How did that computer on my desk get there? How did that phone I've used for so long get so smart?' " said John Hollar, CEO of the museum in Mountain View, Calif. "It's an exhibition that's primarily aimed at a nontechnical audience, though there's a ton of great history and information for the technical audience as well."
The exhibition is designed to be accessible to visitors in multiple ways and includes documents, video presentations, more than 5,000 images and 1,100 artifacts in 19 galleries. It also features hands-on interactive stations that will demonstrate the principles of computing; for example, visitors will be able to pick up a 24-lb. Osborne computer or play a game of Pong, Pac-Man or Spacewar.
Among the key artifacts on display will be a 1956 IBM 305 computer and its 350 hard drive; the first commercially available machine of its type, it held 5MB of data and took up almost an entire room. Also display will be the console of a 1950 Univac 1, the first computer to become a household name; a complete installation of an original IBM System/360, which dominated mainframe computing for 20 years; and a Cray-1 supercomputer, which reigned as the world's fastest from 1976 to 1982.
The exhibit will even include "The Utah Teapot," which pioneering University of Utah graphic designer Martin Newell used as his 3D computer model. The teapot became the standard reference object or test pattern for computer graphics. The more realistic that graphic designers could make the teapot look, the better their graphics engines were considered. Newell bought the little teapot at a local hardware store.
Also on display will be the ENIAC, which was built during World War II and was the world's first large-scale computer to run at electronic speed.
"This is one of the greatest electronic computers ever invented," Hollar said. "We've made this a very human story. We've tried to talk about not just what happened, but what mattered in history. What mattered often boils down to the people who were the great innovators and the problems they were trying to solve, and so much of the exhibit is devoted to those important people stories."