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...In Which I Go Full Nerd

Nick JohnsonNick Johnson

Jet lag is a funny thing. Right now it actually seems to be working in my favour; it's managed to knock a couple of bad habits out of me. Specifically, these happen to be the not entirely unrelated habits of going to bed too late (then making it later by reading for a good long while) and getting up too late. Right now I seem to be fighting to keep my eyes open by around nine, and then being wide awake by seven. Which is more or less the position I found myself in on Sunday. Since day one at Google camp was a couple of days away I thought I'd check out my immediate surroundings.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but there isn't actually a lot to do in Mountain View. One of the things there is to do, however, is the computer history museum, which I'd been told is exactly as awesome as it sounds. In case my meaning isn't clear: really awesome. There is no sarcasm here. Look at my face. Awesome. This is not my sarcastic face. Awesome. Face. Awesome.

I have a rental car, but the brakes scare the shit out of me, and the place didn't look too far away, so I decided to walk. Now, I'd been warned that no one walks in America, but I wasn't quite prepared for it to be true. I must have walked 5 miles on Sunday and saw a grand total of perhaps 3 other pedestrians, and found that drivers looked at me as though I was a crazy person. I think perhaps one reason for this might be that the pavements (or sidewalks, if you like) are... well... shit. Anytime you have a height difference of more than an inch between two slabs... that's bad.

Slightly thankful that there were no other pedestrians to see me trip, I arrived at the building in question. Externally, it's kind of neat. You might mistake it for the headquarters of some hip new tech startup. If it wasn't for the big sign saying "Computer history Museum" outside, obviously. Inside, though, it reminded me quite of bit of the Science Museum ("which science museum?" "The Science Museum"). It's nowhere near as grandiose, and has a much narrower focus, but the comparison feels apt.

The scope of the exhibits is quite impressive, starting with slide rules and abaci, moving though Babbage (oh, I'll come back to Babbage), on to Turing and right up to the present day. Here are a couple of examples of things which made me smile:

The Altair 8800, quite an important machine in the history of Microsoft, of which the fictionalised version of Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley says "I never had any problem with the Altair... until I tried to use it."

You know what's better than that, though? A computer made out of wood. If you bought an Apple I you received a box of parts and some schematics. You hade to supply the case yourself. You know what else is awesome? UNIX is awesome:

You see? There's a badge and everything. What says awesome more than a badge? Oh wait, I know:

Oh yeah. That's right. I bet you wish you were cool enough to have that licence plate. As a side note: I wonder if anyone does have that licence plate, since I assume this one isn't real. Furthermore: what kind of car would you put that on? This is fodder for Pimp My Ride right here. They should get on that ("Yo, we heard you like UNIX...").

There was a lot more at the museum. Too much, in fact. I arrived about an hour after it opened and literally left as they locked the door behind me. I probably skipped about half of the section on the internet, and only had time for a brief look at the exhibit on the history of computer chess. Did I mention that they have half of Deep Blue? They also have something else very, very cool, and that's one of the two Babbage Difference Engines which we only very recently developed the capability to actually build:

You really can't do justice to this thing in a photograph. It's beautiful. A marvel of engineering, it actually works exactly as Babbage said it would, and he built it entirely on paper. In 1849. Somebody should build an Analytical Engine. That, my friends, would truly be something.

One last thing:

I think this might be THE teapot.

Update: Someone is building an analytical engine!

Another update: there is a follow up post here.

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