Computer museum clicks

2009-10-11T00:30:00Z Computer museum clicksDONNA HEALY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 11, 2009 12:30 am  • 

At a graduation ceremony in Bozeman, the founder of the American Computer Museum encouraged the audience to picture a rancher in 1892 stepping into a darkened hotel room in South Dakota.

The rancher, accustomed to gas lamps, struck a match as he entered the room. In the flickering light, he saw a large sign placed in the hotel by the Thomas Edison Co. as hotels across the country converted from gas lamps to light bulbs.

The sign read: "This room is Equipped With Edison Electric Light. Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by the door."

In smaller type, it said:

"The use of Electricity for lighting is in no way harmful to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep."

Amid the audience's laughter, the speaker held up the original sign.

"Oh boy, how far we've come," he said.

George Keremedjiev, the director of the computer museum in Bozeman, showed the sign to computer science and engineering majors during graduation ceremonies at Montana State University Bozeman, shortly after he received an honorary doctorate from the university last May.

Keremedjiev, 56, drew more laughter when he quoted a Popular Mechanics article from the 1940s predicting computers would some day have only a thousand vacuum tubes and weigh just 3,000 pounds.

"Oh boy, how far we have come," he repeated.

When it comes to computers, going back to the 1970s seems like ancient history, but Keremedjiev traces the history of the storage retrieval and communication of information all the way back to the clay tablets of the Sumerians, who developed the oldest known writing system. He does it a way that strikes a chord with his audience as skillfully as a musician.

"You can't walk away from any conversation with George Keremedjiev and not be pumped up by the nature of these things," said Robert Marley, dean of the engineering school at MSU.

"George just has that gift to connect things."

John Paxton, head of the computer science department at MSU, describes Keremedjiev and his wife, Barbara, as collectors at heart.

Their collection grew from a single mechanical calculator he bought in 1980.

"They began to get so much stuff, only a museum began to make sense. Both of them are totally dedicated to it, and I think they both think of it as their life's mission," said Denbigh Starkey, a professor of computer science at MSU.

In August, the computer museum that the Keremedjievs opened in 1990, moved close to the edge of MSU's campus. The move was even more symbolic of their close ties to the university than the honorary degree.

Although the museum is a private, nonprofit organization with no official affiliation to the university, the Keremedjievs have acted in conjunction with MSU's computer science department and engineering programs over the years.

One of the most significant collaborations has been an award for the living pioneers of computer technology. The award brings in speakers who have shaped much of the world as we know it in the information age. Among them are inventors of e-mail, the first cell phone and the World Wide Web.

Keremedjiev has also given guest lectures at many college classes and is on the advisory board of the university's computer and engineering programs. The museum uses a space in Wilson Hall on campus for a rotating display of artifacts related to the history of technology.

The Keremedjievs moved to Bozeman in 1988 for the scenery, but they brought with them a passion for preserving technological dinosaurs such as the Burroughs model 205, a 60-foot-long, 6-foot-deep behemoth from 1956.

"Today's smart phones have several hundred million times more power than the Burroughs 205," Keremedjiev said.

The museum has space to display only about 6 percent of the collection. The rest, like the Burroughs, is in storage.

Paul Ceruzzi, curator of aerospace electronics and computing for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is a fan of both the Bozeman museum and the technology awards.

Even the Smithsonian sometimes falls short in finding a way to get the average visitor excited about computer history, Ceruzzi said.

"The artifacts themselves are not that exciting to look at without some interpretation," he said.

The Bozeman museum is one of two full-fledged computer museums in the country. The other, the Computer History Museum, is in California's Silicon Valley.

The Bozeman museum displays the first version of the Apollo guidance computer, on loan from the Smithsonian. The computer is the precursor of ones used to land men on the moon.

Nearby is the original Omega watch worn by Apollo 15 Commander David Scott. A poster-size photo shows Scott wearing the watch strapped to the outside of his space suit while on the moon.

"We got to the moon with a wind-up watch and two kilobytes of RAM memory," Keremedjiev said.

The guidance computer was state-of-the-art technology in the mid-1960s. It has roughly the same amount of memory as a greeting card that sings "Happy Birthday."

By displaying examples of the major innovations that took people from the world of muscle power to the computer age, Keremedjiev tries to take some of the mystery out of how computers work and to lessen the apprehension some people feel about technology.

"It's very important for young people to understand that, just 100 years ago, electricity was a magical mystery, and now it's second nature," he said.

The average car has 46 computers, microprocessor chips that control everything from the side-view mirrors to the electric seats, he said.

"People think of computers as something on a desk with a monitor, but the computer is embedded in all these objects," he said.

"Your bathroom scale has a computer. Your Mr. Coffee has a digital computer built in. Your digital camera, your iPod is a computer."

Just 44 years ago, a disk from a hard drive was shaped like a record album the size of a hula hoop. It could store eight megabytes, the equivalent of two, four-minute songs.

"The idea of having an iPod with hours of music would have been unthinkable only 40 years ago," he said.

In 1965, a computer left the floor for the first time. It weighed 250 pounds, but it sat on a table top, making it the first desktop computer. It contained 4,000 bytes of memory, enough to store one page of typed text.

It took another decade for the desktop revolution to explode.

Keremedjiev pointed to a photo as he stood in a room full of personal computers dating back to the mid-1970s.

"Bill Gates looked like this when he dropped out of Harvard and went to work for Ed Roberts, who invented the first commercially successful PC," Keremedjiev said.

Gates, Microsoft's founder, wrote the major portion of the software for the Altair. The computer's software came as a roll of punched paper tape, which sits in a glass case near Gates' photo.

Behind it sits Altair's printed instruction sheet. Buyers who experienced problems with the software were instructed to call Gates or his programming team at a phone number listed on the bottom of the sheet.

Altair's competitor, an original Apple I computer, was donated to the museum by its inventor, Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple computers with Steve Jobs.

"These were built in the bedroom of Steve Jobs and shipped out of the garage, and only 200 were built. Most of those were returned for the Apple II, when it came out a few months later," Keremedjiev said.

The museum also includes pieces of Montana's history - an operator's switchboard from Red Lodge; Montana's oldest telephone, from Fort Shaw; and Montana's oldest calculator, which was used to figure the gold content of ore from the mines at Helena.

The first computer used at MSU stretches across the wall of one room. The computer, from 1964, contained 20 kilobytes of RAM and had an emergency shutdown switch in case it went haywire.

Many of the technological discoveries that fueled the information age were made in the mid-1950s to early 1960s.

"In a way, I was part of that generation, and I just have a great passion for documenting how it all came about," Keremedjiev said.

"In my lifetime, I saw technology go from relatively simple electro-mechanical devices to extremely sophisticated microprocessor-based devices. I just felt it would be kind of neat to explain how all this happened."

Keremedjiev was born in Caracas, Venezuela.

His parents, who were of Russian descent, were displaced persons at the end of World War II. Venezuela was willing to take European émigrés to help develop its economy. His father worked for Phillips Electronics.

The family moved to America when Keremedjiev was 9, and he grew up in Paterson, N.J.

In college, at Rutgers University, he majored in music. His goal, at the time, was to work for Bose, designing speakers and stereo systems. Instead, he became a technical consultant in manufacturing automation in the metalforming industry.

For 23 years he has written a column for the trade publication Metalforming Magazine, and, since 1986, he has been a technical consultant on mistake-proof manufacturing.

The museum, which attracts about 8,000 paid and unpaid visitors a year, runs on what Keremedjiev describes as a "strand of a shoestring budget." It employs two, part-time paid staff members. The Keremedjievs volunteer their time.

"George is the idea guy, and Barbara makes it happen. Barbara is just a true workhorse and dedicated to the museum as well," Marley said.

He describes George Keremedjiev as a quiet and reserved person who gets so passionate about the subject matter that he turns into an extrovert.

A few years ago, Keremedjiev was invited to give a lecture to a graduating class, Marley said.

"It was so popular, people wanted it online."

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1292.

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