Department of Computer Science

Public collection

A Paradox?

Since computers haven’t been around for a long time, there should be no problem to document the complete history of their development up to date in a museum. However, although the first programmable computer was built only in 1941, it is virtually impossible to find a reasonably representative selection of artifacts.

Many people think only of their PCs, notebooks or PDAs as computers, but nowadays, a majority of computers are embedded systems, i.e. they are used in complex machines and devices (cars, washing machines, video recorders, cell phones etc.) and often are not even visible.

In our small collection at the Wilhelm Schickard Institute we focus on the documentation of two revolutions in computer technology:

  1. In 1957, Kenneth Olsen and Harlean Anderson established DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) with the aim to produce computers small enough to be employed in offices and laboratories and without requiring specially trained operators or air conditioning. In 1960, they introduced their PDP 1 (Programmed Data Processor) into the market, revolutionizing the conception of computers. Instead of huge machines in a price range of millions of US Dollars, the PDPs found their way into universities, laboratories, and factories. Our museum has three interesting DEC machines on display.
  2. In 1971, the first microprocessor came onto the market, which is basically a CPU (central processing unit) on a single chip. At once, computer clubs sprang up at the USA’s top universities, whose members all wanted their own, if possible self-assembled computers in their homes. Soon there were companies that supplied industrially manufactured computers for home use: Apple, Tandy Radio Shack, Commodore, and others. IBM’s entrance into the microcomputer market changed the image of these machines from hobby computers to accepted personal computers. Ken Olsen from DEC failed to see this new development – to him, PCs were only toys compared to the heavy-duty business machines he built. This misconception finally led to the downfall of DEC which entered the PC market not only too late but also without any success.
    The WSI museum has a number of PCs on display.


The following computers are on display at the WSI: