Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Birth of the Personal Computer

Some time ago I mentioned how I was in Albuquerque and hoped to see the semi-permanent exhibition “STARTUP: Albuquerque and the Personal Computer Revolution but the galleries were temporarily closed.  I finally saw it on a return visit and I am glad I did.

The reason the show is in Albuquerque at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science is because it all started here with Bill Gates, Paul Allen and the Ed Roberts.  Not surprisingly the idea for the exhibition was Paul Allen’s.  As a matter of fact he still has a home here  in Santa Fe.

He and his sister Joe Allen Patton and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put up the lion’s share of the funds for the gallery.  The exhibition is amended from time to time but shows no signs of closing.  They certainly won’t close it when it is still so popular with children and their parents.

My introduction to the computer was when I was a small boy in the early 1950’s and I visited my father’s art gallery, Rosenberg & Stiebel.  Across the street on 57th Street and Madison Avenue was the IBM building.  This was long before the Edward Larrabee Barnes building opened in 1983.  The entire Madison Avenue side was devoted to large windows through which you could see ENIAC or UNIVAC, the early computers that took up most of the rooms.  They were gigantic machines with tapes spinning round and round.  That was as close as one could get to a “laptop”!

Even by the early 1970’s your home computer would cost you about $20,000 and it would be the size of a small refrigerator.  Of course, you would also need to know one of the three most common programming languages of the time, Basic, Cobol or Fortran.

The exhibition is not complicated and the labels are not in computerize.  Small children can grasp the ideas and there are many objects that anyone can relate to such as a transistor radio.  I owned one in the late 1950’s that I remember cost $300.  It was a Zenith which was then a big name in radios.  Today you can find the equivalent for as little as $15.  You can even find an iPod for $50.

I liked the fact that one of the exhibits was an erector set.  Admittedly, it looked like a rather advanced one but it was the kind of toy that could lead to exploration and invention.

I could imagine how a child with a mind like a Bill Gates, Paul Allen or Steve Jobs could go from playing with an erector set to being what Bill Gates calls a “computer nerd” He said that, “Anyone who spends their life on a computer is pretty unusual.”  Then, of course, one needs an inquisitive mind and the patience to stick with it.

Add to that a vivid imagination of what could be.  Paul Allen writes, “I was always thinking about the future as a kid.  When you’re a kid, you think anything is possible.”   “I saw the idea that combining a microprocessor with BASIC was going to be a powerful thing” and that is what Gates and Allen set out to do.  They succeeded and tried it on a computer they had never seen before, the Altair, and eventually it came together and worked.  The Altair came to public attention in 1975 when it was introduced as a kit that it’s designer, Ed Roberts, thought would only be bought by a few hundred hobbyists. Instead it caught the attention of thousands.  Ed Roberts became the third member of the original Microsoft team.

It all began in a garage in New Mexico and grew from there.  Microsoft is still very much with us but there has been a strong competitor in recent years, Apple.  As mentioned the exhibition gets amended from time to time and now there is a corner devoted to Apple.  It is a generous gesture both on the part of the Museum and the sponsors of the exhibition.

It’s less than 40 years since the PC made it’s debut and the world wide web is less than 25 years old yet they have become so much part of our lives that it is hard to remember being without them.  Steve Jobs summed it up with a quote that appears at the end of the show, “The Journey is the Reward.” 

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