"History teaches us the mistakes we are going to make" -Unknown
Reflections on Computer History
This time of year I think about history. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Computer History Museum’s annual Fellow Awards and my fourth as Program Chair. On October 16, 2007, four computing technology pioneers, Morris Chang, John Hennessy, David Patterson, and Charles Thacker will be inducted as Fellows. There they will share their insights and stories, which will be recorded as part of the Museum’s artifacts.
Others are thinking about history because this month also marks 50 years since the founding of Fairchild Semiconductor, the company regarded as the start-up that spawned the Silicon Valley chip industry. Venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme, who joined Fairchild as a product marketing engineer in 1963, remembers it as “the Google of the era.” This past weekend, the Museum hosted panels and a reunion gala, where others who were there or wanted to be, shared their stories.
Dean Takahashi, reporter for The San Jose Mercury News, went Behind the Scenes at the Museum and highlights in his words the “forgotten tales from the frenetic history of the electronics industry”.
Compared to most historical subjects warranting a museum, 20 or 50 years of computers hardly seems enough to qualify. But capturing first hand the early stories of computing technology, while many of its original pioneers are here to help tell them, is one reason it is so fascinating to me.
Another reason I work with the Museum is pure love - an ongoing unadulterated love affair. Let me explain. . .
What Is History?
"History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there" -George Santayana
The Computer Museum, Boston, 1984-99
The first time I visited the original Computer Museum was in 1990, when we both resided in Boston. Even though I began my technology career in the ‘80’s and the Museum officially in ‘79, we were both younger, and our respective missions were different than today. It was an interesting place to visit, but at the time I did not feel a close connection.
Later we both moved to California. I arrived in ‘94 and the Museum in ‘96 as The Computer Museum History Center. In 2001, the year its name was changed again to The Computer History Museum, I was reacquainted. However my experience, like the institution’s name, was profoundly different.
The Museum’s visible storage area was located in Building 126 warehouse at NASA’s Moffett Field in Mountain View, CA. The military location seemed quite appropriate considering the means by which early computing came about. The artifacts were carefully grouped in a cramped and primitive space, a hodgepodge that let you know that the Museum was still a start-up.
Building 126 (lower left), Moffett Field
Almost as soon as I walked in the door, I felt a flood of emotion and a curious nostalgia. I thought, “Wow. Where did that feeling come from?” An IBM System/360 mainframe was assembled, the same model I used in my first job as a neophyte programmer. It was like a part of my life flashed before me, complete with reel-to-reel disks!
All of a sudden I traveled back in time, back to all those crazy stories, working with fellow engineering renegades, swearing at punch cards, and puzzling through tall stacks of agonizing computer core dumps that were nothing but a series of seemingly random numbers that today would only appeal to the most serious Sudoku players.
Shoreline Blvd., Mt. View, 2003-present
I totally loved it – all of it. The Museum reminded me why. The industry was so full of possibility, and we all knew then we were part of its commercial beginning. There was also something unique about the nature of the work then, being so close to the hardware, the operating system, and the application logic. Even when I had to study the green and yellow Assembler language cards, I was always amazed how it all connected. Not unlike how we as a society and environment are all connected.
That day at the Museum, history was personal. Recalling my own stories, I wondered, “How does my memory compare to what happened at the time?” And even further, “How would my colleagues who were there tell the same stories?”
"The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice"
-Mark Twain, Following the Equator
Why Do We Care About History?
"Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up" -Author Unknown
The answer I was given when I asked why we study history in grade school was, “because it teaches us where we came from and where we are going.” Since then I’ve been known to quote George Santayana who said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The San Francisco Chronicle asked some of today's technology company CEOs, “As we look back at what is widely considered to be the founding of Silicon Valley 50 years ago, share your greatest hope - and greatest fear - for the future.” In general, the quotes range from fears that the next golden age is causing traffic gridlock to hoping that we won’t rest on our laurels, allowing innovation to happen elsewhere.
To be fair, the CEOs weren’t asked to think about the universe or the world at large. But even when asked about the history, fears and the future of high-tech Silicon Valley, how would any of us answer these questions? It’s important to consider because our individual and collective conversations predict and determine our future.
When we do pause long enough in our egocentric, survive-at-all-cost lives to learn history, do we ask:
- From whose perspectives are the stories told?
- What beliefs do we have that filter or warp our understanding?
- Do we see how history is literally and metaphorically repeating itself generation after generation?
- Do we have the know-how or intelligence as a species to evolve?
- Do we care enough to change?
Reflections on Columbus Day
"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"
As we consider the impacts of Columbus Day along with the who, what and why we build and apply new technology -- what lessons will inform our response to our present global conditions?
In Columbus' logs from his first voyage, he is continually astounded by the kind and thoughtful ways of the people he meets. Here are a few excerpts during the weeks after October 12, 1492:
"And the people are all so gentle. These are the friendliest people. There cannot be better or more gentle people than these anywhere in the world. The chiefs are men of few words and fine manners, it is a marvel. The houses of the Indians are the most beautiful I have ever seen. They are well swept and quite clean inside, and the furnishings are arranged in good order." On Columbus' second voyage, a compatriot of Columbus noted that the native people came out "to greet the ships with gifts of fish and fruit, as if we had been brothers.”
Columbus thought that these people were a living expression of God, and the word Indian actually comes from the Spanish 'in Deos,' or in God. What an oddity it was, then, that they were wiped out in the name of Christianity. Pope Alexander VI issued the Bull Inter Caetera (May 3, 1493) granting the right to the monarchs of Spain to own, possess, and exploit any part of the Earth not already under control of a Christian nation. The real destruction began after his second voyage, which left for the Americas in 1493. This time there were 17 ships, and about 1,200 men. The arriving Spaniards were shown the same kindness and humanity as on the previous voyage, but this decency was not reciprocated, and in a generation's time, millions of native people were dead, and nearly every Caribbean island thoroughly devoid of its original inhabitants.
As Columbus traveled through the Caribbean islands, in each place he would read the following fearsome document giving the Church and the monarchy of Spain the right to seize the lands, and if necessary, kill the occupants:
I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and Their Highnesses. We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highnesses may command. And we shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him.
In a generation’s time, millions of native peoples were dead, and nearly every Caribbean island thoroughly devoid of its original inhabitants. In time more than 95% of the first peoples of the Americas (an estimated 15 million) would perish and their way of life would be lost for ever.
-- Excerpted and adapted from American Indian Prophecies by Kurt Kaltreider
My hope is that we will have the courage to record, search and listen to the stories that bring the wisdom and compassion needed to heal our wounds – and learn to live together on the planet in ways that honor the dignity and possibilities of all life. My fear is that since it means we must learn how to look beyond our own perspectives – it is not a simple task given the power of ego.
"Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history" -Plato, Ion
Tags: Computer History Museum, Moffett Field, Fairchild Semiconductor, IBM System 360, Columbus Day, George Santayana, Mark Twain, American Indian Prophecies, Kurt Kaltreider, Plato, Dean Takahashi, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Floyd Kvamme, Morris Chang, John Hennessy, David Patterson, Charles Thacker, UpRight Matters