THE Museum of Computing was born 10 years ago after a gestation period that lasted 13.
If the anniversary celebrations include a cake, it’ll probably be served by a robot, as robotics has been chosen as the birthday theme.
“We probably have about 40 robots,” said Simon Webb, curator of the pioneering Swindon museum. “The oldest is a HERO 1, an educational robot from the 1980s.”
Simon pointed to the machine, which is being refurbished and sits on a shelf with its external panels removed and its circuit boards on show – a bit like R2D2 at a nudist colony.
“The collection goes up to modern industrial robots. We’ll be having a robotics exhibition, a robotics programming session, a talk from a leading roboticist.” He smiled and added. “And also a party.”
The robots are among the best part of 3,000 items in the collection. The oldest is a 19th century slide rule – a calculating device still in widespread use as recently as the early Space Shuttle missions. The most recent is an iPod.
There are examples of the ZX80, the ZX81 and countless other machines yearned for by millions during the home computer boom of the 1980s; there are video game consoles from Pong through Atari and all the way to the Wii; there are countless mechanical and electronic calculators; there are early storage discs the size of gongs and there are hand-held games which are immortal memories for any ex-kid who drooled over an Argos catalogue in the weeks before a long-ago Christmas.
Simon, an inveterate collector of old computers from car boot sales, credits the opening of the museum with restoring domestic harmony in his home. “I had computers under the beds, in cupboards, on shelves...”
Many of those machines are now exhibits.
It was in 1990 that IT expert Simon and museum founder and director Jeremy Holt, a lawyer specialising in technology issues, began talking about the project – the country’s first museum of computing. They became friends through work and later set up the Swindon Psion Organiser Users’ Group. For the benefit of younger Adver readers, a Psion Organiser was a sort of hand-held electronic appointments book in the olden days.
In computing terms, the 23 years since 1990 isn’t so much a lifetime as several eras laid end to end.
“When I was researching getting the museum started,” Jeremy said, “if I wanted to research something I had to go to the public library. There was no internet. To get support for the museum I had to write to all the IT companies and they had to write back.
“You just had the telephone and the post. You might have had fax and Telex but it was pretty crude, and you couldn’t send a message to a large group of people unless you went out and bought a lot of stamps.”
As well as its exhibits, the museum has a classroom in its basement and offers computer courses for people of all ages. There is also a computer club and a so-called Hackspace in which enthusiasts build and programme.
Highlights of the last 10 years include a live action town centre PacMan match to celebrate the classic game’s 30th anniversary in 2010, and visits by the Duke of Kent and home computer pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair.
The first exhibition included a replica of a wartime Enigma coding machine, loaned by Bletchley Park, the historic headquarters of the cipher-smashers who helped to destroy the Nazi war effort.
The museum began at the old University of Bath in Swindon’s Oakfield campus, went temporarily into storage in 2007 and re-emerged in Theatre Square in 2009. A non-profit currently open only on Fridays and Saturdays, it has 30 volunteers and 3,000 visitors a year.
And what of the future? Simon said: “It would be lovely to think we’d have bigger premises because we do struggle for display space. We’d also love to be open seven days a week, and to showcase not just artefacts but also the latest technology.”
The museum’s website is www.museum-of-computing.org.uk