VMworld 2019: Day 0

I don’t have to do a lot of business travel, so when I do, I try to make the most of it by finding something local to do. Whether it’s touring the city, going to a museum or just sampling the local cuisine, I do my best to to get in some “me time.”

And so I found myself booking a flight to my second VMworld in San Francisco. I wasn’t interested in seeing the usual sights–I lived here for over two decades and have spent plenty of time in the Bay Area at the handlebars of a Honda Helix.

One thing I hadn’t seen, however, was the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. I typically arrive at these events the day before so I can beat the crowds, check in to my hotel and get a good night’s sleep and a shower before the big event. In this case, I flew in to San Jose, caught a quick Lyft and bought my ticket. The CHM offers a free bag check, so I dropped off my big duffel and began wandering.

This museum is massive and I got there just as they were opening. The walking path winds through the museum exhibits in historical chronological order, starting with abacuses and slide rules.  Following the path leads to mechanical and electromechanical calculators typically used in finance and engineering, as well as mechanical  cash tills. 

Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine (3/4 scale replica)

Next up are mechanical tabulators and calculators that use punched cards. On display are a multitude of machines that sort, count and duplicate punched cards. Several early analog computers are on display as well. Finally, the first electronic computers come into view. While most artifacts are of pieces of early computers or peripherals (including a massive Univac control console), the jewel in this part of the exhibit is the JOHNNIAC, a very early vacuum tube computer built in the early 1950s by the RAND Corporation for its own internal use. Besides being one of the longest-lived early computers (with over 50,000 hours on its hour meter), it was also upgraded several times during its lifetime, including core memory and additional instructions.

RAND Corporation’s JOHNNIAC, complete in its art deco enclosure.
The massive control console for the UNIVAC I, circa 1951.
UNIVAC 1 Supervisory Control Printer, circa 1951. Essentially a Kegerator’s worth of parts were needed to run the UNIVAC’s output through a Remington typewriter mounted on top.

In the Memory and Storage exhibit, the entire history of storage technology is on display, from vacuum tubes and drum storage to hard drives and flash. Of interest is the progression of hard drives from washing-machine sized peripherals weighing hundreds of pounds to CompactFlash-sized microdrives. Other artifacts on exhibit here include game cartridges, Zip disks, optical disks and floppies.

A massive IBM RAMAC 350 drive from circa 1956. The first production hard drive, it holds 5 million characters (3.5MB). Human for scale.

The Supercomputers exhibit contains something I didn’t think I would ever get to see: a Cray 1 supercomputer. The familiar ‘sixties piece of furniture’ look is there, but the unit was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Several other supercomputers, including a piece of a Cray 2, are on display here.

The Cray 1, with one ‘seat cushion’ and inner panel removed to see the guts.

Past the supercomputers, a multitude of minicomputers are on display. Among them are the iconic PDP-8 and PDP-11 systems from DEC, as well as the DEC VAX and other systems.

The IBM System/32 midrange business computer. It consisted of the computer, a tiny screen, keyboard and printer built into a desk.

I was running a bit late at this point, so I sped a bit through the rest of the exhibits. The personal computer era was more my era, so other than repeating waves of nostalgia, I had seen most of that exhibit before. The usual suspects were present (Commodore PET, VIC-20 and 64, Atari 800, early Apples and Macintoshes, etc.), as well as an original PC clone made by PCs Unlimited, a little company founded by Michael Dell and later renamed after himself. There were also dozens of artifacts I remember from my childhood, such as the Speak and Spell, the Heathkit HERO robot, the Tomy robot, Colecovision, etc. It’s a must-see for any Gen X’er.

The Milton Bradley Big Trak vehicle, a programmable toy vehicle from the eighties.

The exhibit comes to a conclusion with the dot-com bust that happened in about 2000, and perhaps the poster child for the dot-com bubble, the Pets.com sock puppet. Many though of Pets.com as the prime example of hubris of dot-com executives who thought that they could profitably ship cat sand and 50-pound bags of dog food to customers anywhere in the US for free.

Pets.com is dead; long live Pets.com.

Now to the best bit. CHM has two fully functioning IBM 1401 computers, and every Wednesday and Saturday, docents, all of whom worked on these systems back in the day, fire them up and do demonstrations. On this visit, one of the docents was Paul Laughlan, who also was known as the author of Apple DOS, Atari DOS and Atari BASIC. (Paul’s wife wrote the Assembler/Editor for Atari home computers.) As a lifelong Atari fan, I was a little tongue-tied, but we talked quite a bit about the past. He then allowed visitors to type their names onto punch cards at a punching station and fed them into the 1401 to get a souvenir printout. I did get a picture of their PDP-1, though there were no demos that day. (The PDP-1 is turned on one Saturday a month and visitors can play Spacewar! against each other.)

One of the two functioning IBM 1401 computers at the CHM.
Paul Laughlan, retired software engineer, giving us a demonstration of the punch station
A punching station. Computer operators would type machine code and data into the punch machine, which would punch the data onto punch cards to be fed into the 1401. CHM has three of these laid out like they would typically be laid out in production.
CHM’s DEC PDP-1 minicomputer. This one is in full operating condition and once a month, visitors can battle each other in Spacewar!

There’s an entire additional wing of the museum dedicated to programming languages and software culture, but I bade my farewell and grabbed a Lyft into San Francisco to get ready for Day 1 of VMworld. It was an item checked off my bucket list and a lot of fun.

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