Montana museum tells story of computers

 

BOZEMAN, Montana--As every diehard Star Trek fan knows, Bozeman was the site of the first contact between humans and Vulcans, but you don't have to be a Trekkie to find a reason to visit this charming college town on the high plains of the American West. If you've ever used a telephone, played a video game, used a PC or even a typewriter, read a book, or simply been intrigued by the remarkable history of the information age, you'll want to make time for a visit to the American Computer Museum.

Formerly named Compuseum, the American Computer Museum has recently been expanded and relocated to a stand-alone building in a bland commercial park on the south side of town near Montana State University. Surrounded by identical buildings occupied by lawyers, chiropractors, real estate agents and the like, and without any sort of eye-catching signage, the museum is easy to miss. You must persevere. It's a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours.

The museum is the brainchild of Dr. George Keremedjiev, a specialist in robotics and artificial intelligence whose primary job takes him around the world to help companies automate their factories. He has two paid staff who can guide you through the 185-square-metre museum, but if it's your lucky day he'll be there to take you through himself. The museum is clearly his labour of love. Keremedjiev has assembled a vast collection, of which only six per cent is on display at any given time, and it has been cleverly structured to begin in the present and work backwards.

The tour's timeline starts with today's smart phones and ends up in Babylon some 4,000 years ago, and down this long and winding information highway are numerous opportunities to consider the myriad innovations that changed the world. There's a reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism (from Rhodes, circa 87 B.C.), considered the world's first computer. There's a replica of the Gutenberg press (plus a page from an authentic Oxford bible of A.D. 1235); part of an 18th-century weaving loom, which Keremedjiev says demonstrates "the fundamentals of software"; artefacts from the laboratory of Thomas Edison; and numerous documents bearing the penmanship of such pioneers as Samuel Morse and Alessandro Volta (inventor of the electric battery), among many others.

Naturally, there's an extensive array of "firsts," like the first video game, the first portable phone and the first personal computer--all of which appear gigantic next to today's models. As Keremedjiev explains each of them, they seem impossibly quaint yet mind-bogglingly significant. Take the original Apollo Moon Mission Guidance Computer, a hefty piece on semi-permanent loan from the Smithsonian. The audio chip that sings "Happy Birthday" in a Hallmark greeting card has the same processing capacity as this machine (two kilobytes of RAM), which put men on the moon.

What's next? "The future is implants that will project images directly onto the cortex," Keremedjiev says. "Gadgets built right into the brain, letting you connect to the Internet just by thinking." The timeline? Thirty years from now, he says confidently.

For more information on the Museum, visit www.compustory.com. For information on travel in Montana, visit the Montana Office of Tourism website at www.visitmt.com.

John Keyes and Anne Garber are members of the Meridian Writers' Group.