The “What If?” Wall Exhibit

Our “What If?” wall exhibit tells the tale foreshadowing the coming of the home computing revolution.

As one strolls through our entrance room, examples early post-WWII computing hardware, manuals, and components are displayed as they were made in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During this time, computers were typically room-sized and noisy industrial machines owned and operated by government, military and big business. Through the 1960’s components got smaller. Tube modules were replaced by transistors and chips. Core memory, an early form of RAM, became common in most computers. Computers became “real time” devices where one would enter a query and expect a result without delay. Multiple user computers also became available. The earliest networking appeared, allowing geographically-separated computer users to communicate through modems and the phone system. File sharing and computer correspondence (what became email) made its first appearance.

The owners of these early computers needed a workforce to support and operate them. They turned to the universities to produce computer “scientists”, hardware technicians, and application programmers. It did not take long for many of these newly-trained computing pioneers to dream, “What If we had access to computers at home?” What else could we do with computers other than process insurance and credit card applications if we had access to them? Was it possible to build a home computer?

May 1967 Popular Electronics Magazine

It is no surprise that university computer labs were the birthplace of computer games and non-business computer applications, constructed simply for fun. After a long day or school work, why not apply newly-gained knowledge to play around with the computer? At about the same time electronics components shrank in both size and cost, making them practical to purchase for tinkering and experimenting. Electronics hobbyists and ham radio operators were the first to assemble these less expensive electronics into computing devices. Although the first of these were not quite computers as we know them today, the stage was being set for the homebrew computing hobby. Educators began to teach young children how to perform data entry as the first generation of children computer users came to be. Non-technical computing books were sold in the classifieds section of Radio Electronics and Popular Science magazines. It was only a matter of time before the supply would meet the demand. Do you know what happened next?