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 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 it’s 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.

The Centre for Computing History is open daily, with regular events as well – standard entry is £9 per adult.

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8 comments on “Pay a visit to Cambridge’s computer museum
  1. Maurice Reed says:

    LEO – Lyon’s Electronic Organiser.

    Developments of these led to the creation of the British company ICT International Computers & Tabulators which later evolved into ICL International Computers Limited which ultimately folded in the late 1980s.

    • FM says:

      ICL survived to 1998 when Fujitsu finally acquired all of it.

    • DH says:

      Unfortunately wrong on all counts!

      LEO stands for Lyons Electronic Office. The design of LEO I was based on the Cambridge University EDSAC, with enhancements to make it suitable for commercial work, and was developed in house by Lyons. The computer business was subsequently spun out into a separate company LEO Computers Ltd, which went through various mergers to become English Electric Leo Marconi (EELM).

      ICT, itself the product of many mergers, was a competitor to EELM. ICT, EELM and Elliott Automation then merged in 1968 to form ICL.

      ICL was eventually acquired by Fujitsu in 1999, following a long lasting technology relationship. It was then re-branded as Fujitsu Services in 2002. It is still going today although much smaller than it once was, and as the name suggests is focused on services rather than hardware manufacture.

  2. Estelle Wolfers says:

    Link to David Parr House is dead.

  3. Paul Heston says:

    Looks great. In case anyone is interested and as it’s more accessible from many parts of the south of England, Swindon also has a fairly compact computing museum with a similar array of machines from through the ages, many of which are switched on for visitors to play with. There is a small games gallery. Cost of entry is commensurate with its size, £2.50 last time I was there.

  4. SimonB says:

    Knight, Wizard or Serf?

  5. Bob McIntyre says:

    Thanks for an interesting trip down memory lane.

    Your “laptop” computer is an Osbourne 1 which at 10+kg would give your thighs something to think about after a while. It didn’t have a battery so had to be plugged in. I had a boss in the late-1980s who swore by his (frequently and loudly!).

    A slight correction to one point: Minitel was not what today we would consider part of the Internet; it was a separate phone-based system more akin to our own Prestel but easily searchable.

    It would be interesting to know how many old computers (and old-timers like me) are still going. I was recently asked by an Oxford University department to sort out an early PC running a machine code program under Windows 3.1 as none of the youngsters knew what to do…

    Perhaps there should be a museum for us too?

  6. DH says:

    Another computer museum you should check out is The National Museum of Computing (www.tnmoc.org), based at Bletchley Park although separate to the Bletchley Park Trust museum on the site, which is also worth a visit.

    It boasts many working historic computers including WITCH, the world’s oldest working digital computer from 1951, a huge ICL 2966 mainframe from the 1980s, IBM and Elliott minicomputers from the 1960s, as well as the usual round of home micros and games consoles, plus many other delights.

    In addition to all that there are working reconstructions of wartime code breaking equipment – the Bombe, used to find Enigma settings, and Colossus which helped to break the Lorenz cipher used by the German High Command.

    Bletchley Park is a 5 minute walk from Bletchley station on the West Coast mainline, and thus within easy reach of London.

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