A Stroll Down (Data) Memory Lane


It's located an hour's drive north of the wonders of Yellowstone National Park and has nothing to do with the outdoors, yet everything to do with our habitat in the information age: It's the American Computer Museum—a quirkily engaging stop-over before or after a visit to Yellowstone (or Glacier National Park, which is also relatively close by) that reminds us of the remarkable journey from flint chips to computer chips.

The museum's half-dozen rooms, situated in an office suite adjacent to the campus of Montana State University, overflow with antiques and artifacts. Remember those now-enormous but at the time incredibly compact eight-inch computer floppy disks? Do the names Osborne or Altair (whose software the young Bill Gates had a part in writing) ring a bell? How about the Apple 1 computer, of which only 200 were made in 1976? Well, examples of each are all here—Steve Wozniak donated the Apple 1 himself.

The 2,000-square-foot space provides barely enough room to display 6% of the museum's holdings. Yet you'll still find all manner of models, machinery and accessories that most of us long ago, or only yesterday, relegated to the junk heap—but which museum founders George and Barbara Keremedjiev have determinedly and, yes, artfully, recycled and arranged to chronicle the millennia-long story of data recording and transmission. (Hang around the museum long enough and techie lingo definitely rubs off. Then again, is there a better phrase to describe the nonoral imparting and storage of information external to human memory?)

Given the array of iconic 1950s TVs, early video games and rotary telephones, some nostalgic baby boomers may wish to stop by just to revisit the black-and-white electronic era of their youth. But the main theme here is information technology's march of progress in all its facets, historic and contemporary.

Indeed, the chronicle begins with a display of authentic thousands-year-old Sumerian clay tablets etched by a reed stylus, among the earliest known means of written communication. There is a life-size reproduction of Gutenberg's mid-15th-century printing press, the machine that jump-started the information revolution for the modern age. Another exhibit focuses on Samuel Morse and the history of the telegraph—the watershed 1840s invention that ushered in the "wired" world of today by providing a way to transmit information at the speed of electricity, via those telegraph wires. (As for the impact on history in general, not just computers, don't miss the original telegrams to and from Abraham Lincoln in this section.) As for another form of "wired" information transmission—the telephone—contemplate today's palm-size devices as you view Montana's first larger-than-desk-size operator switchboard; remember that those boxy, bulky 1920s headphones were no less up-to-date in their era than the newest wireless headsets are today.

Still another exhibition room goes onward and upward to space itself, including an original NASA moon-mission computer (on loan from the Smithsonian). It's truly inspiring—but what's mind-staggering is Mr. Keremedjiev's observation that all the computing firepower available to NASA during the Apollo missions is exceeded today by a mere X-Box or Wii video-game console.

The walls of the other rooms and corridors are covered floor-to-ceiling with displays of such items as then-revolutionary but now quaint 1950s-era televisions, old-time radios (the wireless of its day) and a section of Eniac (short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the 680-square-foot behemoth dating from the late 1940s that was the first general-purpose electronic computer. The human brain has a place, too, in a section devoted to the differences between the ways that human and computer brains work. (Basically, Mr. Keremedjiev explains, our brain cells operate simultaneously on multiple problems, while computers work on one problem at a time very quickly.)

The nonprofit museum opened in 1990 after the family basement could no longer contain Mr. Keremedjiev's ever-growing trove of computer relics. That happened shortly after he received "the proverbial warning from my wife that either the collection goes, or the husband goes along with his collection," he says wryly. The marriage survived, and the museum is now the oldest continuously operating computer museum in the world, according to Mr. Keremedjiev, who was born in Venezuela, grew up in New Jersey, and has a successful career as a computer consultant.

Then again, Mr. Keremedjiev notes, there are only two other computer museums in the world: the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn, Germany, and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. (The California museum, also founded by a married couple, is undergoing a $19-million expansion and will open a new 25,000-square-foot exhibition in January 2019.) The dearth of such museums puzzles Mr. Keremedjiev, especially in light of the abundance of car, train and aviation museums. Ironically, one reason may be the very fact that "we're so surrounded by computers in our laptops, cellphones, cars, electronic watches, iPods and TVs that it's hard to look up from your desk and not see an electronic device," he says.

But that is all the more reason to look back and try to understand where our computer immersion came from. That is also why this museum presents educational programs for everyone from second-graders to graduate students, collaborates on programs with Montana State University, and sponsors annual awards to recognize computer-world heroes both sung and unsung. (One honoree, biologist Edward O. Wilson, described the museum as "inch for inch the best museum in the world.")

"We've been so busy upgrading our devices we haven't bothered to look back at where these now-upgraded ones came from," Mr. Keremedjiev laments. And so much of that not-very-old past has been discarded that to amass a collection from scratch today comparable to Mr. Keremedjiev's would be impossible. "Those items just don't exist anymore." But "the history of the telephone, telegraph, printing press, the Sumerian clay tablets, this is all part of the same story," he says, and it leads directly to the SmartPhone in your hand—and whatever comes next.

Ms. Cole is a contributing editor of US News & World Report, author of the memoir "After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges," and the book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker.




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