Friday, November 29, 2019

Visiting the Centre for Computing History

I visited the Centre for Computing History today in Cambridge, UK. It's home to old machines from computer science history, 80s home computers, 90s games consoles, and much more. It was nice to see familiar machines that I used to play with back in the day. This post has pictures from the visit to the museum.

The journey starts with the Megaprocessor, a computer build from 15,000 transistors with countless LEDs that allow you to see what's happening inside the machine while a program runs.

The Megaprocessor has its own instruction set architecture (ISA) with 4 General Purpose Registers (GPRs). The contents of the GPRs are visible on seven-segment displays and LEDs.

The instruction decoder looks fun. Although I didn't look in detail, it seems to be an old-school decoder where each bit in an instruction is hardcoded to enable or disable certain hardware units. No microcoded instructions here!

Ada Lovelace is considered the first programmer thanks to her work on the Analytical Engine. On a Women in Computer Science note, I learnt that Margaret Hamilton coined the term "software engineering". Hedy Lamarr also has an interesting background: movie star and inventor. There are posters throughout the museum featuring profiles on women in computer science that are quite interesting.

The museum is very hands-on with machines available to use and other items like books open to visitors. If nostalgia strikes and you want to sit down and play a game or program in BASIC, or just explore an exotic old machine, you can just do it! That is quite rare for a museum since these are historic items that can be fragile or temperamental.

Moving along in chronological order, here is the PDP-11 minicomputer that UNIX ran on in 1970! I've seen them in museums before have yet to interact with one.

In the 1980s the MicroVAX ran VMS or ULTRIX. I've read about these machines but they were before my time! It's cool to see one.

This HP Graphics Terminal was amusing. I don't see anything graphical about ASCII art, but I think the machine was connected to a plotter/printer.

The museum has a lot of microcomputers from the 1980s including brands I've never heard of. There were also machines with laserdiscs or more obscure optical media, what eventually became the "multi-media" buzzword in the 90s when CD-ROMs became mainstream.

Speaking of optical media, here is an physical example of bitrot, the deterioration of data media or software!

Classic home computers: ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Atari ST Mega 2, and Acorn. The museum has machines that were popular in the UK, so the selection is a little different from what you find in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, USA.

There are games consoles from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. The Gameboy holds a special place for me. Both the feel of the buttons and the look of the display still seems right in this age of high resolution color displays.

The museum has both the popular Nintendo, SEGA, and Sony consoles as well as rarer specimens that I've never seen in real life before. It was cool to see an Intellivision, Jaguar, etc.

Back to UNIX. This SGI Indy brought back memories. I remember getting a used one in order to play with the IRIX operating system. It was already an outdated machine at the time but the high resolution graphics and the camera were clearly ahead of its time.

Say hello to an old friend. I remember having exactly the same 56K modem! What a wonderful dial-up sound :).

And finally, the Palm pilot. Too bad that the company failed, they had neat hardware before smartphones came along. I remember programming and reverse engineering on the Palm.


If you visit Cambridge, UK be sure to check out the Centre for Computing History. It has an excellent collection of home computers and games consoles. I hope it will be expanded to cover the 2000s internet era too (old web browsers, big websites that no longer exist, early media streaming, etc).