We awoke to snow falling horizontally in the brisk winds. It didn’t really amount to much, but it made us glad that our plan for the day was to visit the Museum of Natural History and Science. Normally this sort of museum would not draw our attention, since we have such a great one at home, but there’s a new exhibit here that was of interest. I’ve always thought of Seattle as the town where Bill Gates built Microsoft and brought millionaire status to his employees. But Bill and Paul Allen got their start here in Albuquerque, and the exhibit was a treasure trove to items, many donated by Paul, that traced the earliest beginnings of the computers that we cannot imagine living without today.
An early personal computer, the Altaire, was built here and you would tell it what to do by flipping switches up and down. Getting it to add 2+2 took 58 switch flips. Bill and Paul figured out how to write the Basic programming language that was fed into it on paper tape, making the computer much more user friendly. Bill left college without graduating to come here for three years and refine his program. Bill realized that the Basic language would be useful to all the little companies building computers out of their garages and kept the rights for himself. After IBM bought Basic and made it part of their operations, Bill was on his way to being the richest man in the world. Paul Allen did all right, too.
The exhibit included many videos of young men with wild, long hair, living on pizza and coke and programming until the wee hours of the night. Initially, they were inclined to share and help one another solve problems, but once Bill and his license came along, things changed.
These days it is often the case that we visit museums to see items that we remember using ourselves and this was certainly the case here. It was fun to think about how far we have come and how quickly. Our first computer was the Apple IIe and I often wondered why I had never seen at Apple I. There were only 800 of them built and the electronics were housed in custom built wooden cabinets. It seemed to us that the world has changed drastically since the days of using a slide rule that we can remember from our youth, but I suspect that our parents felt that the changes they saw in their lives were equally dramatic.