A photographic tour through the early days of the tech industry
By Anna van Raaphorst-Johnson and Dick Johnson
For all of the recent boom and widespread hype of modern day Silicon Valley, it remains compelling to consider that the region’s ties to technology and computer innovation date back well over 60 years.
The Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View does an amazing job as stewards of this history, putting on top notch exhibits and high profile events which speak to many aspects of the industry. In a more behind-the-scenes context, the CHM collects and manages an immense archive of material and artifacts closely tied to the evolution of computer technology and the culture which created it. And while it may all still seem closely tied to recent history, we suspect that our galaxy-jumping time-traveling future generations may be enthralled to look over ancient home computers, and amazed to ponder the once terrestrial-bound technology culture of their ancestors.
With all of this in mind, we asked the CHM if they could clue us in to a few of the fascinating finds from their recent archival efforts.
Silicon Valley’s leadership role in the high-tech industry dates
back as far as World War II.
Not long after Hewlett-Packard moved out of a Palo Alto garage and into a proper building, IBM established its first San Jose site in 1943 with a punch-card manufacturing facility at the corner of Sixteenth and St. John in the downtown area.
In 1957, IBM opened its Advanced Research Building located on a 200-acre parcel off Cottle Road in South San Jose. The site, designed by Berkeley architect John Savage Bolles, was very innovative for its day.
Each building on the IBM Cottle Road site had a unique tile pattern designed by muralist Lucienne Bloch to look like
one of the IBM punch cards that had brought IBM to the Bay Area in 1943.
Unlike the dark, virtually windowless buildings typical of the pre-World War II era, IBM’s Cottle Road research site had floor-to-ceiling windows that brought in the sunlight and blurred the connection between indoors and out. The grounds around the buildings boasted such amenities as tables for al fresco dining and a horseshoe pit for afternoon work breaks. The casual design was repeated in later Silicon Valley high-tech campuses with their outdoor courtyards and game rooms.
The IBM Cottle Road site was most famous for its “flying-head” disk drive technology that allowed real-time online transaction processing for applications like airline reservation systems.
Building 025 was the crown jewel of Bolles’s award-winning Cottle Road campus design, featuring a reflecting pool and artist Robert B. Howard’s towering “Hydro-Gyro” modernist sculptures.
The Building 025 complex was closed in 1995, and shortly thereafter IBM began to sell off portions of its business. The disk drive business, which was a descendant of IBM RAMAC, was taken over by Hitachi.
IBM also sold off some of the land, including a parcel now occupied by Lowe’s home improvement company. As a nod to the historical significance of the site, the Lowe’s building is decorated with a punch-card mural.
A fire destroyed the IBM Building 025 complex. Today the former Hydro-Gyro sculpture, reflecting pool, and bridge sit in ruins next to RAMAC park.
Dress to impress
Business dress for high-tech workers followed the trends through the years, but typically appears to have been far more formal than it is today.
Up through the 1980s, “suits and ties” were the norm, not only for people in sales and marketing, but also in jobs like hardware installation and maintenance. The Computer History Museum archives contain hundreds of prints and negatives containing formally dressed employees.
However, it has always been important for companies on the cutting-edge of technology to look up-to-date, hip, and maybe even a little provocative. In this regard, the fashion fads of the era — from mini-skirts to bellbottoms — can also be spotted in some of the same archived images.
As any computer archivist knows — an hour of cataloging and storing vintage hardware is worth three hours sweating it out in the gym.
We all realize that over time computer hardware gradually gets smaller and more compact. However, suddenly jumping back 50 years can be a bit of a shock: wrestling a mainframe-era computer into its resting place in the museum warehouse is not for the faint of heart. For example, a CPU from the IBM System/360 family (shown top left) weighs about 600 pounds.
The older computers were maintained and repaired by customer engineers, who needed internal access to do their work. The hardware was often wired by hand. It was a complex and messy business.
One of the notable early pieces in the CHM collections — the IBM Stretch computer, an early transistorized supercomputer that pioneered the architecture of the IBM System/360 family — is a dizzying labyrinth of tiny interconnected internal wires.
Home computers have been around longer than you might
In 2016 the Computer History Museum celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first home computer. The ECHO (Electronic Computing Home Operator) IV was built in Pittsburgh from Westinghouse electronic components by Jim Sutherland in 1966, more than a decade before the first commercially available home computers (Apple II, Commodore PET, and Radio Shack TRS-80).
Sutherland configured his computer to interact with numerous aspects of his home, enabling his family unique control of many household features, including the TV, stereo and thermostat.
Dag Spicer, CHM’s senior curator, wrote a fascinating article about the ECHO IV as part of the anniversary celebration. (The ECHO IV computer is now part of the CHM collection.)
Product documentation used to require a lot of storage space,
as in bookcases, not electronic files on your laptop hard drive.
The Computer History Museum has been archiving historic computer documentation for many years.
Most of the IBM product documentation was published in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. The documents were shrink-wrapped and delivered to customers ready to be inserted into IBM-blue binders. With each subsequent product release, additional or replacement pages were included in the release package, which needed to be inserted into the binder by hand. High-tech professionals collected dozens of binders full of thousands of pages over the course of their careers.
The authors of this article, Anna van Raaphorst-Johnson and Dick Johnson, participated as pro bono volunteers in two recent Computer History Museum (CHM) projects: CCARP, which focused on “vintage” hardware, and CLIR, which is focusing on archival
material like photographs and product documentation.
Anna is a technical writer and editor; Dick is a software engineer.