Before you toss out that really old computer stored in your garage, consider that it might be a historical artifact.

At the Computer History Museum‘s Revolution exhibit, the computer industry has, for once, been frozen in time. Everything from Digital Equipment Corp.’s PDP-1 minicomputer to the Apple II personal computer is on display. It’s a place you can go if you want to see innovation and all of its connections to the past, said Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and one of the museum’s supporters (Woz is seated third from right).

The museum’s permanent Revolution: The First 2,000 Years of Computing exhibit opens to the public for the first time on Thursday at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. It is a declaration to the world that the stuff that many people consider to be junk is really the flotsam and jetsam of a revolution. The museum has spent $19 million on its makeover to convince people it’s worth viewing. For those who aren’t familiar with the history of Silicon Valley, the museum is a good place to start.

Consider the Osborne computer (right), the subject of the now familiar “Osborne effect.” In 1983, Adam Osborne bragged about the features of an upcoming product months before it could be released, killing demand for the company’s existing products. It became one of the big no-nos of the computer age to brag about such vaporware.

“It’s one of the top four or five most important inventions in the world, like the printing press and the wheel and the cotton gin,” said Len Shustek, chairman of the museum’s board and one of the people who pushed for the museum 15 years ago. “It’s happened in such a compressed time. We are living in a time when we are going through a transition from having no computers anywhere to computers in everything we touch.”

He added, “We are here with Michelangelo as he paints the Sistine Chapel and we have to record how that happened.”

As San Jose Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy
noted, the museum is an attempt to answer the question of “where do you take someone to show them the heart of Silicon Valley?” You can take them to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., or the Intel Museum in Santa Clara, Calif. But now there’s a new place to go where professionals have curated 19 major exhibit areas with more than 1,100 artifacts, or roughly 2 percent of the museum’s entire collection. Even the building itself is part of computer history, as it is the old sales and marketing building of graphics computing pioneer Silicon Graphics.

I once walked through the collection in the back of the museum, where you could see the notebooks of creators such as early computer architect Gordon Bell. Now much of that has been moved to a warehouse off site, and the museum itself is home to a 25,000-square-feet exhibit that you can walk through in an hour or two, Wozniak said.

The interesting thing about the computer revolution is that the story doesn’t have an ending.

“It isn’t over yet,” said Shustek.

Check out our videos featuring Len Shustek, Steve Wozniak, Al Alcorn, Don Knuth, Francis Allen and others who attended a press event this week at the museum.