Computing Museum creators reflect on rapid advancement of technology
Museums commonly feature items such as ancient artifacts and dinosaur bones.
That’s not the case for the Computing Museum housed in Smith Hall at the University of Delaware. Many of the items on display only date back a few decades — some less than 15 years.
Created by an interdisciplinary team of computer science and museum studies majors, the museum came to life in 2006. Now 13 years later, some of the items considered modern then are not even used today.
Paul Amer, a retired UD computer science professor, lead the project. Many of the items in the display are from a personal collection he built over the years. Looking over the display, he said what inspired him then and still holds true now is just how rapid the transformation of technology has been.
“The stuff in here is computer equipment that I used when I started teaching … it went from two disk for one song, to now in your pocket for a $100 bucks you can hold all the music that you would want to listen to in your whole life,” Amer said.
That’s why he finds the evolution of computing technology so fascinating.
“You go into a museum and you see a dinosaur and you think ‘Golly look how far we’ve come from dinosaurs,’ but that’s like a couple million years,” he said. “This has been 40 years.”
The items on display generally fall into the categories of storage or communication devices. One such item, a Digital Equipment RK05 Disk from 1979, is a flat round device that weighs 110 pounds. The museum also features a secondary display showcasing the evolution of Apple Computers. This includes the 17-pound Macintosh SE that came with a carrying case resembling a cooler, both of which were unveiled in 1987. The museum also has two sculptures composed of computer parts, created by two UD art students.
Following the museum’s 2006 debut, Amer had plans to continue adding items and switch out the second display. He thought he could feature the histories of other big companies like IBM and Microsoft. Unfortunately, after the initial excitement, nothing further was ever done with the project.
Chandra Reedy, interim director of the Center for Historic Architecture and Design, who brought her background in art history and museum studies to the project, said the museum continues to serve as an important reminder for students.
“It’s good that we have some really early things about the history of computer science and computing there for students to be able to actually see,” Reedy said. “If we had a whole building and a whole gallery, we could probably fill it and have things continuing. Every decade there’s going to be more things that are now history that used to be current.”
Another aspect that continues to stand out for all those involved, was working across what seems like such different disciplines. Lori Pollock, a professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, said there were challenges.
“Part of the challenge is there are people from two different disciplines and being able to talk to each other in terms of just the vocabulary that they use [is difficult],” Pollock said. “Also, understanding what quality is in each discipline.”
As an example, she highlighted the process of creating the labels that would describe each item. The computer science side of the team took the first crack at it. When they came back, she said most of the students and professors on the museum and arts side had no clue what the descriptions meant. That’s when they decided on explaining how much data could be stored in the devices based on song lengths.
Difficulties aside, they all agree the combined effort created a stronger end product.
“It’s the same thing as diversity in teams,” Pollock said. “You don’t want a team that all looks the same because you’re all going to think the same or very similar. You want a team that works and thinks differently so that you get more interesting ideas.”
She said interdisciplinary work is an opportunity for students to explore what is possible beyond their own disciplines and gain an appreciation for other fields.
Jan Broske, collections managers of Special Collections and Museums, said she learned a lot from Amer and his students, especially how well the subjects actually work together.
“Art and science are not mutually exclusive,” Broske said. “Aesthetics and analytics can live together in harmony.”
Amer continues to have a lot of pride in the project. As he looked at the display and noticed a burned out lightbulb and an item fallen over, he took the time to fix it.
While the history of computer science really excites him, he is worried about the direction technology is heading. He said what concerns him most is how detached it seems to be making people — an interesting shift from the connectedness technology often promises.
“I have to admit that I’m not thrilled by technology,” Amer said. “I’ve spent my entire life teaching it, promoting it, helping it, but now as I’ve gotten older I’m not excited by walking around campus and seeing eight out of ten students attached to their phones as they’re walking and not talking to each other.”