"A Walk Through 'Visible Storage'", section 6 of 6, by LEN SHUSTEK
From "CORE 2.3", a publication of The Computer History Museum.

Forward, Backword, Table of Contents, Docent Page


Although the digital electronic computer now dominates, it wasn't always clear that binary was the best way to compute. From the 1920s to the 1960s "analog computers" represented numbers in a much more direct way than an abstract string of bits: a signal of 5.2 volts could be the number 5.2. You could add, subtract, multiply, and divide at blazingly fast electronic speeds. But the accuracy of the results and the complexity of the computational sequences was limited, so stand- alone analog computers, like these made by EAI

Photo by Kevin Powers
and Heathkit,
Photo by Kevin Powers
became dinosaurs that only survive in textbooks and computer history museums.

The Museum collection contains many other instructive dead-ends, although not all of them were failures. The Illiac IV

Photo by Kevin Powers
from 1970 was an experiment in making one fast computer out of a bunch of slower ones that all execute the same program in lock-step on different data. It worked, but it turns out not to be a great way to build fast computers. Note the coffee-table-sized hard disks on the right (above), that hold about as much as yesterday's floppy disk.

Some computers in the collection always bring a smile to visitor's faces. This "Kitchen Computer"

was the fantasy item in the Neiman-Marcus catalog in 1969, and was an attempt to answer the persistent and puzzling question: Why would anyone want a computer in their home? The standard answer for years had been "for storing recipes," and this computer had a builtin chopping board to facilitate following its recipe instructions. Of course, the input was in binary and the output was in octal, so the user interface left something to be desired! For about $10,000, you could get the computer, an apron, a set of cookbooks, and a two-week programming course. As a measure of the social sensibility of the time, the advertising tag line for this Honeywell-built computer was "if only she could cook as well as Honeywell can compute." We have no indication that even one of these wonderful home appliances was actually sold, but many home computers still come with recipe software.


The most dramatic change in computing in the last five years has been the astounding growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web. This interconnection of millions of computers started modestly in the late 1960s by a government-funded project called ARPANET. This refrigerator-sized computer was the "Interface Message Processor" ("IMP")

Photo by Jessica Huynh
manufactured by Bolt Beranek and Newman of Cambridge, Mass., as the communications pipe for the ARPANET, which started with only four nodes: mainframe computers at Stanford, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. Thirty years later, even cell phones can be nodes on the network.

At the dawn of the era of ubiquitous mobile computing, this virtual tour appropriately ends with an early ungainly example of mobile personal computing: Steve Roberts' computerized recumbent bicycle BEHEMOTH

Photo by David Pace
(Big Electronic Human-Energized Machine ...Only Too Heavy). In the 1980s, Steve logged about 17,000 pedal-powered miles while sending email from a chorded keyboard built into the handlebars and reading responses on the heads-up display attached to his helmet. If it sounds like Steve was pedaling to the beat of a different drummer, think about him in a few years when every device you own is seamlessly connected to the Internet and you do email while in the shower.

go to top
Forward, Backword, Table of Contents, Docent Page