Exhibitions

Many important objects from the Computer History Collection were on exhibition in Information Age:  People, Information and Technology, a 14,000 square foot display that was located on the first floor of the National Museum of American History.  Opened in May 1990, the exhibition surveys the history of information technology and its relation to society from the origin of the telegraph to the present.  

The display featured over 900 original artifacts. They included Samuel Morse's telegraphs, Alexander Bell's telephones, a Hollerith punched card machine,  a 4-rotor German ENIGMA encoder used during World War II, the ENIAC computer, the TELESTAR test satellite, an automotive welding robot, a selection of early personal computers, and digital high definition television.

Theme

Information Age centered on the technical evolution of electrical and electronic information technology. The telegraph began a revolution in communications by transmitting information in electrical form instantly to distant locations. This new phenomenon of instant information was later expanded by the telephone, radio and television. Then the digital electronic computer made it possible to process information instantly. As the computer developed and matured, communication and processing technologies were joined into networks that now stretch around the world, affecting all areas of global society.

Although the exhibition was built around this technical theme, its emphasis was as much on social as technical change. The transformations in information technology  came in a context of social forces such as business, politics, wars, and consumer interests. The exhibition highlighted the interaction between these social forces and the development of information technology.

Objects

The Computer History Collection includes artifacts relating to the production, collection, modification, manipulation, and use of information in modern American society.  The collection comprises artifacts employed in the processing of information as opposed to its simple communication.  By processing, we mean operations of objects that involve the following functions:

  • Encoding, or getting data into a machine in coded form
  • Storage, or preserving the data or information within the device
  • Modification, or changing the data within the device.
  • Decoding, or getting data out of the device into symbols that humans can understand.

Data processing objects in the computer collections are all electronic, as earlier processing equipment is in the mathematics collections or other collections in the museum.  Because information technology is ubiquitous, other units of the museum also rightly collect artifacts of information technology related to specific processing tasks (e.g. robotic machine tools, typewriters, printing presses, and photographic equipment).

View selected items from the computer history collection.

Approximate numbers of objects in the collection:

Mainframe computers or components 25
Minicomputers 10
Supercomputers 4
Microcomputers 50
Other digital devices 15
Analog computers 10
Computer peripherals 100
Software 500
Electronic components 1000
Electronic calculators 450
Documentation 150 cubic feet

Reference Materials

The Computer History Collection includes a wide variety of reference materials related to the objects in its collections.  Access to these materials generally requires making a research appointment with the Division.  Over time, selected materials being digitized and made available to the public on-line.  A few are available below.

In addition to holdings in the Division, reference materials on the history of computing are available in the American History Archives Center.

[PDF] Original Press Release 1 for ENIAC Computer, February 16, 1946 (3 pages / 48 K)


[PDF] Original Press Release 2 for ENIAC Computer, February 16, 1946 (2 pages / 42 K)


[PDF] Original Press Release 4 for ENIAC Computer: Physical Aspects and Operations, February 16, 1946 (3 pages / 31 K)

[PDF] Presentation entitled "Using the Computer: Episodes Across 50 years" by David K. Allison. Delivered to the ACM Annual Meeting Session honor the 50th Anniversary of the ENIAC, Philadelphia, February 14, 1996. (590K)

Monticello Memoirs, a 1996 gathering at Monticello of Pioneers of the Information Age

Interviews

Although the development of modern communications and computers is among the most important aspects of modern American history, historical writing about the development is remarkably sparse. And few of the leaders of the development have written their own memoirs.

The Smithsonian Institution is capturing the recollections of some of these people in the form of oral and video histories. In this area, you will find transcripts of some of the Smithsonian's images. Copyrights of the interviews belong to the Smithsonian Institution. They may be cited or quoted briefly, but not reproduced or published in any form.

Marc Andreesen - Interview with Mr. Marc Andreesen, Chief Technical Officer of Netscape, Inc., winner of the 1995 SAIC Leadership Award for Global Integration, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Gordon Bell - Interview with Dr. Gordon Bell, winner of the 1995 MCI Leadership Award for Innovation, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Robert Ballard - Interview with Dr. Robert Ballard of the Jason Project, winner of the 1990 Award in the Category of Education and Academia, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program

Seymour Cray - Interview with Seymour Cray, Winner of the 1994 MCI Information Technology Leadership Award for Innovation, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

J. Presper Eckert -Interview with J. Presper Eckert, Co-Inventor of the ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer)
From Development of the Eniac Interviews, Smithsonian Videohistory Collection, Record Unit 9537, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC

Larry Ellison - Interview with Mr. Larry Ellison, Chief Executive Officer of Oracle, winner of the 1994 SAIC Leadership Award for Global Integration, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Douglas Engelbart -Interview with Mr. Douglas Engelbart, Winner of the 1994 Price Waterhouse Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Bill Gates - Interview with Mr. William "Bill" Gates, Winner of the 1993 Price Waterhouse Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Steve Jobs - Interview with Mr. Steve Jobs, Chief Executive Officer of NEXT.

Ann Meyer - Interview with Ms. Ann Meyer of the Center for Applied Special Technology, winner of the 1993 Award in the Category of Education and Academia, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Tom Nies - Interview with Mr. Tom Nies, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of CINCOM Corporation, a pioneer software company.

Kenneth H. Olsen - Interview with Mr. Kenneth H. Olsen of Digital Equipment Corporation, winner of the 1993 MCI Information Technology Leadership Award for Innovation, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Charles S. Peskin and David M. McQueen - Interview with Charles S. Peskin and David M. McQueen, Winners of the 1994 Cray Leadership Award for Breakthrough Computational Science, Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program.

Lewis Sadler - Interview with Mr. Lewis Sadler, Winner of a 1989 Computerworld Smithsonian award in the category of Government and Nonprofit Organizations.

Hal Uplinger - Interview with Mr. Hal Uplinger, Winner of a 1989 Computerworld Smithsonian Award in the Media, Arts & Entertainment Category for the production of the "Live Aid Concert"

Don Wetzel -Interview with Mr. Don Wetzel, Co-Patentee of the Automatic Teller Machine. The National Museum of American History gratefully acknowledges the financial support of MasterCard International in the creation of this transcription and the video history from with it was made.