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Why I care about preserving computer history

Bobby JohnsonOctober 03, 2017

I am deeply honored and excited to be joining the board of the Computer History Museum. I believe this is an enormously important institution in today's world, and I'll try to explain why.

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It's probably not very surprising to say that I think the general purpose stored program computer is the greatest achievement of humanity to date. If you were to argue with me I might concede that the semiconductor circuit or the compiler are as great an achievement. To use a somewhat tired example, the iPhone that you're reading this on is a magical device. Just a decade ago even the richest person in the world didn't have access to what each of us now carries in our pocket. Even a wizard in our imagination did not have the power that we all now wield in our day to day life.

But it's not magic, which is why I think the Computer History Museum is so important.

That device in your pocket is the result of many lifetimes of hard work, creativity, and clever ideas. It is a marvel of intellectual coordination. No single person understands every part of it; instead, it is created by people around the world: builders, artists, scientists, and experts in many crafts, building on the intellectual underpinnings of previous generations of these people. That is why it is not the greatest achievement of a human, but of humanity.

That is why the story of how computers were created is so important - it represents the best of our species. If we believe it is magic, or the work of some lone genius, we will not learn how to continue accomplishing things of this magnitude.

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This is particularly apparent in the world today, as both reason and intellectual cooperation are under attack in today's politics. Ironically, a lot of this is happening with the tools of the computer revolution. A deep understanding of how we arrived where we are today will help us navigate our current situation successfully.

And if we are successful, I believe it will be because of a belief in reason and an understanding of how to both build on what our predecessors have learned, but also improve it. The creation of the computer is a great example of humanity doing this in the past, which is why I'm excited to be involved in preserving that story for the future. 

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