A few pictures from my recent visit (twice in a week!) to Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum. This is a must-visit sight in the Valley for anyone even remotely interested in computers -- but be sure to check in on their website and let them know you'll be attending a tour -- then they know how many docents to have available. You can go many times and every visit will be different, depending on the interests and background of the docent giving the tour. I went once to talk to them for a story, and then again a few days later (bringing my dad), just because I wanted the time to look at all the exhibits again! My dad really enjoyed the tour as well, and I was glad I had him along, because he had a special story to tell -- but more of that in a moment.
I'll post some pictures now and then over the coming weeks, but today I thought I'd show you the Johnniac, a massive computer that went operational in either 1953 or 1954, built by the Rand Corporation and named in honour of (and built to a design of) computing pioneer John Von Neumann. Isn't it beautiful? The computer is notable not just for its amazing metal casing, with the Cadillac-style lettering for Johnniac, but because it was one of the first computers to have a memory -- which was all of 4k!!!! Only one of these was built. Here are a couple of images:
Now, for my story. I've always had a little blurb in my bio about how, as a young child in 1969, I played the game of 'hangman' with a huge computer that was off in some other room -- I just sat down at a little desk in front of what looked like a typewriter, and the computer printed 'hello', and off we went. As far as I remember, this was not a shining moment for man vs machine (or even girl vs machine) as I lost. Several times! But I never forgot the experience. The reason I got the opportunity to match my little brain against this piece of Big Iron was that my dad was working on a project at Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, CA. He's an MD, not a computer scientist, but he was working with a researcher on an exploratory project to create what was essentially an early expert system. Dad had written the first textbook on respiratory diseases to approach the diseases from the point of view of symptoms first, to aid diagnosis (rather than just describing the disease). Dr Ginsberg, the researcher, had the idea that a computer might be able to perform an analysis by evaluating data in the same way. Hence I got to spend part of a summer running around the beaches of Santa Monica while Dad worked for Rand.
Well. Turns out that, after 40-something years, Dr Ginsberg looked up my dad and gave him a call just a short time before Dad and I went to the Computer History Museum. And while we were at the museum, at some point when I was gushing about the various machines in there (OK, I'm sad, but I get pretty excited about all that kind of stuff), and just after the museum's very nice CEO John Toole had stopped over to say hello, Dad said to him and me, "You know, I'm pretty sure the Johnniac was the machine you played hangman with down in Southern California." After I peeled myself off the floor, I asked how he knew that, and he said Dr Ginsberg had told him this when they spoke. John Toole confirmed that the Johnniac was down there around that time. Now, the histories I can find say the Johnniac was 'decommissioned' in 1966, but whether that means it was still working at Rand and thus really was the machine I played against, or had been completely shut down and it was actually some other big, fat mainframe, I don't know.
I'd like to think it was the Johnniac. Maybe it was quietly sending out a hello again when I visited and that's why, before I'd heard this tale from Dad, I was so transfixed by this particular machine on both tours! Note on 22/7: I've just been told it was the Johnniac (that I should ever doubt my father...!). See Dr Ginsberg's interesting comments here.
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