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A visit to the largest computer museum in the world: The Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum

17 Dec

It all started more than seven years ago, when I read a short article in January, 2010 issue of Communications of the ACM, titled “Great Computing Museums of the World (Part One)“.

“The Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum (HNF; www.hnf.de) in Paderborn, Germany, is the world’s largest computer museum. The museum, which is also an established conference center, showcases the history of information technology—beginning with cuneiform writing and going right through to the latest developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and ubiquitous computing.

The multimedia journey through time takes visitors through 5,000 years of history, starting with the origins of numbers and writing in Mesopotamia in 3000 B.C. and covering the entire cultural history of writing, calculating, and communications. Alongside typewriters and calculating machines, the exhibition shows punched card systems, a fully functioning automatic telephone exchange system from the 1950s, components from the earliest computer (which filled a whole room), over 700 pocket calculators, and the first PCs. Work environments from different centuries are also staged in the exhibition.

The exhibition highlights include fully functioning replicas of the Leibniz calculating machine and the Hollerith tabulating machine, a Thomas Arithmometer dating from 1850, a Jacquard loom operated with punched tape, components of the ENIAC from 1945, the on-board computer from the Gemini space capsule, the Apple 1, a LEGO Turing machine, and Europe’s largest collection of cipher machines. One of the current attractions at HNF is the world’s most famous automaton: Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess playing machine, the Chess Turk, which dates from the 18th century.”

I was more than impressed, and wanted to visit Paderborn to see the world’s largest computer museum. I knew it was just a few hours away by car from Antwerp, but I’ve always postponed going there for various reasons. I didn’t want there to go alone, and I knew I needed someone like-minded enough to accompany me on this “nerdy” journey. Finally, last week, I and a physicist / data scientist friend of mine decided to go there, notwithstanding the weather conditions, and very snowy German highways.

I think this is the only museum where digital relics from my childhood and youth (1980s and 1990s) are considered as museum-worthy as replicas of 5000 year old Sumerian tablets! 🙂 It was pure joy and fascination to visit the halls of the museum, and be guided by very thematic and knowledgeable, gentle robots. One of them, Victoria, was a sight to be seen! The other one was also great, and you can watch “him” in action:

There were three highlights for me:

  • My failing at the musical Turing test, I simply couldn’t distinguish between Bach-like compositions created by a artificial neural network and original Bach pieces! (Oh, I was so embarrassed!)
  • Being able to play games from 1980s to 2016, and in the same physical location remember how quickly the technology, as well as the processing power progressed in the last 35 years.
  • Watching an “artistic” robot first take a photo of me, do some image processing and identify some contours, and then quickly draw it with a pen. Observing that robot move in such a manner almost had a soothing, hypnotizing effect on me, no matter how easily I could explain to myself the programming behind all of this:

 

If you are curious about the history of computing, as well as automation, mechanical typewriters, and calculating machines, you’ll enjoy many hours in this magnificent museum; I can guarantee you that time will fly.

And below you can see a few photos from the Heinz Nixdorf Forum MuseumsForum:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Oh, by the way, if you’ve read up to this point, you might also be interested in this collection of old computers from KU Leuven!

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Posted by on December 17, 2017 in General, Science

 

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