Computer Museum in Georgia

I was truly surprised at how awesome this museum is. It’s a fairly new museum, less than three years old, and yet it has a massive collection of not just personal machines, but also super computers and mainframe computers. There’s also a collection of early DEC computers, such as the PDP-8 and others, that really bring back memories. Those were computers that I had always heard about but had never seen up close. Those were computers the elite hackers used and worked on. In fact, I believe it was a PDP-7 that Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson wrote UNIX on mostly. Then later they ported it to the new PDP-11 at Bell labs. Later they rewrote Unix in the new C language.

You can read about it here.

The website for the Computer Museum of America is here.

As you can see from the website, there’s a lot to see. There are a lot of old personal computers and calculators that might be of interest (they were to me), but what you cannot tell from the website is the depth of the individual exhibits. It’s one thing to see a picture of a Cray XMP, like we all did in the computer magazines, but to stand right next to one and look inside a glass side panel is a completely different experience. There are a number of Cray’s there in the super computer exhibit. There are probably 20 or 30 machines from the late 80s up til the early 2000s, and a few more recent machines.

I thought I was computer literate, but looking at those larger machines, especially the super computers, I felt like I knew nothing. My experience has been with microcomputers. And after looking at those super computers, I feel like my experience has been very micro.

For example, I was looking at a heat exchanger from the early 90s, and now I see that liquid cooling is nothing new on computers. This heat exchanger was the size of a small trailer, and it would have been part of the cooling solution. But it had see-through panels to you could at least get an idea of what was involved. I thought I was cool because I used a liquid AIO to cool my overclocked i7-6700K. Well, never mind. I’ll close my mouth and sit quietly after seeing some of these machines.

My One Criticism

I could spend days just with the super computers, or perhaps one or two. It would be nice to have a kiosk handy with some YouTubes about some of these machines. The proprietors are not able to leave the panels off of the machines. And there cannot always be someone around to answer questions. But there are so many questions about these machines, it would be nice to have a FAQ about them.

Or perhaps there are some more placards on the wall I just haven’t seen that explain many of these questions.

One of the questions I have is How do you interface with these machines? I’m guessing you log in through a terminal and basically get a terminal prompt, or perhaps something like an ncurses-type interface. Occasionally I have logged into a mainframe, and that’s how it has been with them. BTW, that’s how it was back in the 80s too I think. I didn’t get a lot of mainframe time then, but I got some, and my exposure was through a TTY emulator. Perhaps that has not changed?

Hands On?

My guess is that it takes a lot to get one of these things up and going. And to keep it going. It would probably be easier to get a terminal to a vm running on a connected Linux box that looks like a supercomputer. Most people would not imagine that there’s a difference.

But some of us are programmers of one kind or another. I would get a kick out of writing a fizzbuzz program and running it on a supercomputer. I imagine others would too?

In any event, these supercomputers are like alien technology. It would be nice to have a little more background on how they actually work. Maybe fire one up for a few minutes? Solve a complicated math problem on it and compare it to a PCs number crunching ability? There’d have to be a really impossible problem to do on a PC that I could understand and appreciate how much power it would take to solve it on the supercomputer. (Understanding it is the key ingredient there.)

I’ll Be Back

If a measure of a museum’s greatness is your intention to go back, then give CMOA a bunch of stars! I could spend days in any of the sections of the museum. One of the fascinating factums is that what you see in the museum (hundreds of machines) only represents a small fraction of the owned exhibits. There are far more computers that are unseen than there are seen in this museum. I’m not sure where they are all stored. My guess is that the owners are very financially well off, and they can afford to not only buy pet supercomputers and mainframes, but also they can afford to store them. I’m guessing that would be akin to collecting vintage race cars or airplanes or large military vehicles. It’s a rich man’s hobby.

So, not only will I keep going back to see new things. I will also go back to keep trying to plough deeper into the simplest of exhibits there. I didn’t pay close enough attention to the devices when I first saw them. I didn’t realize how cool they were when they were new. Now that they old, I’m fascinated by them!