Computer ◆ Conservation ◆ Society

Iconic Machines: Exhibiting a History of Computing

Speakers: Doron Swade
Date: 13th November 2008
Time: 14.30 Room is open from 14.00 - meet up with society members
Location: Fellows Library of the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD

About the seminar

Each computer community has its iconic machines. This is true in the United States as it is in Europe. Yet the machines, and the people that pioneered them, so celebrated on either side of the Atlantic, are barely recognisable to those across the water, from either side.

I spent the best part of the last two years curating a major new exhibition on the history of computing at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, California, this after some three decades in the European museum environment. Practising history in the Valley, surrounded by many of the pioneers of the modern computing age, was like writing a history of gravity with Newton sitting alongside.

This talk identifies historical and cultural issues in the history of computing agitated by the Californian project. What kind of history is the history of computing? Can there be an "historical thesis" in a field still maturing? Are computers as artefacts a special case in the sense of being different in kind from the "tools of the industrial revolution" If so, does their treatment fall outside conventional histories of technology? Are there special challenges exhibiting software? Does the notion of a "timeline", "milestone" and the "iconic object", as tools of interpretation, do violence to historical process? Can an historian do justice to the subject in an environment in which the historical agents are actively on hand many of whom are the Museum´s Trustees, major donors, and computer subject specialists? What is the status of a curator in such an environment? And what of the iconic objects themselves? How does one reconcile two lists and their separate narratives when they have little in common?

The talk will be followed by discussion on the topics raised.

About the Speaker

Dr. Doron D Swade is formerly Assistant Director & Head of Collections at the Science Museum, and before that the Science Museum´s Senior Curator of Computing for some fourteen years. He has studied history, electronics, control engineering, physics, machine intelligence, and philosophy of science at various universities including Cambridge and UCL. He designed electronics hardware for twelve years and consulted for the micro-computer industry in the UK and US. He has published three books and over seventy articles on history of computing, curatorship and museology. He was Visiting Professor (Interaction Design) at the Royal College of Art, and until recently Guest Curator at the Computer History Museum, California responsible for the content of a major new exhibition on the history of computing. He is Visiting Professor (History of Computing) at Portsmouth University, and Research Fellow (Hon) in Computer Science at Royal Holloway, University of London.