Down a rather shabby road in a Cambridge industrial estate can be found a haven of retro computing delights – the Centre for Computing History.
And unlike most so-called retro computer venues who seem to think computers and games consoles, in particular, didn’t exist before the 21st century, this museum is actual retro — and goes a long way back to the era of valves, tape machines, 8-bit graphics, and so many delights.
Having paid, and already spotted an early prototype ZX Spectrum, the main hall is awash with, on first glance, mainly modern games consoles and kids playing them. Ohh, is that a Sinclair C5 over there?
They’ve got a Dragon, and a Vic 20, ohh, three Sinclairs signed by the designer himself.
A more museumy display of computer memory from the old huge discs to the microscopic things we have today.
A room full of even older machines, many military when only the military or universities could have computers. A small case about the LEO computer – probably the first to be used to run a commercial organisation, and being British, of course, it helped out at the Lyon’s tea rooms.
A room of old games consoles and arcade machines, from the earliest game of Pong, which I seem to recall vaguely having as a child as the game switcher seemed familiar, to an arcade Space Invaders which certainly sucked up many hours one summer.
A kid running around telling mum, repeatedly, that the iMac revolutionised the computer. And to him it probably did. This old correspondent, the burst of home computing in the 1980s — the era of Sinclair, the C64, BBC Micros, Dragons — was the great leap forward. Others will cite their own generational moment.
That’s part of the wonder of the museum – the world of computing is so fast-moving, that it can seem odd that something just a few years old is in a museum, yet that “antique” is also something that was once much loved by the visitor, and put away a decade ago as technology moved on.
Then suddenly, the memories flood back.
For some, it’ll be old working practices in the 1960s, for others memories of laboriously typing in code by hand copied from magazines to overheating Spectrums, to playing their first game of Super Mario Bros on a console.
Ohh, is that an Oric computer! And a ZX80! And the little model of an old office computer, used as a special effect in the movie Independence Day, with a LaserDisc (hi-def CD) of the movie behind it.
And an early “laptop” computer.
The French Minitel is here – an early internet console that only closed down in 2012.
Do look out for the original home grocery shopping terminal, that used to connect to Tesco, although you paid when the delivery man turned up.
Oddly enough, the most exciting thing for me was the least expected — as there’s a wall of gadgets and some mobile phones. And front of the case is a Sony phone. My very first ever mobile phone.
At a time when mobile phones were huge, out came this tiny little thing, with its little flip-down microphone. Sadly, and oddly a commercial flop – for while home phones didn’t have a screen showing phone numbers on them, consumers seemed oddly convinced a mobile phone needed one. No screen, no sales.
I’ve rarely seen that old phone since, and had I bought something routine, I doubt I would be able to tell you what it was, but this was my first phone, and I let out a little squeak of delight to see it again.
I didn’t do a “we’re not worthy” in front of the sign about Clive Sinclair, but it was tempting.
One of the most inspired parts of the display, for persons roughly my age was a wall of old computer game cassette tapes. Yes, the original 3D monster maze on the ZX81, Jet Set Willy, Horace, Atic Attack. Oh, the hours playing Atic Attack, although I never did forgive them not releasing Jet Set Willy for the Memotech computers, which I had now migrated to coding on.
They could sell that display wall as sheets of wallpaper.
You can wander around freely, playing with the consoles (the ones that work, a few seemed to be showing their age) and a room full of BBC Micros is next door to say I WOZ ERE once more. Or more usefully, for school trips which teaches the basic principles of coding.
No one who has ever turned a few lines of code into something that magically happens on a screen will ever lose the delight, so the classroom gets the next generation of coders suitably hooked.
The range of history makes the rest of the museum a huge nostalgia-fest for pretty much anyone who has ever used a computer, no matter how modern, or old. That it’s next to a railway line and a level crossing is not at all a factor in why you should visit. And visit you should.