It's only right that a museum devoted to computing should exist in Cambridge. The university town in the Fens has played an important role in the development of the device you're reading now, be that the hardware, the software or the processor inside. The Centre for Computing History started out as one man's labour of love, and also started out in Haverhill, which is never somewhere you'd associate with tourists and museums. Then last summer it relocated to larger premises in Cambridge, on a trading estate on the eastern side of town, and that's made it much easier to visit.
(But not easy. The museum's by the railway, but not by the railway station, more a half hour's walk away. It's not near the town centre either, again half an hour's walk away, close to a large retail park called the Beehive Centre. Beyond the tracks a lane doglegs back past a couple of cut-price tiling outlets, then bends round to a level crossing where you turn right. That's the museum in the warehouse unit at the far end, the metal-roofed shed beyond the cherry blossom. It costs seven quid to get inside, upped last month from a fiver, which you might well think was value for money. So long as you like computers.)
There are three main rooms to explore. The first is the entrance hall, beyond the admission point, where a fairly sparse selection of ephemera holds sway. But look, that's an Apple II microcomputer of 1977 vintage, with a stack of floppy discs by its side, and it's switched on. You can sit down and start playing whatever's loaded, which yesterday was an adventure game in greenscreen featuring the adventures of Sir Ronald. The gameplay's mighty tame by today's standards - typing in text and negotiating a screen dotted with pixellated obstacles - but my weren't we captivated at the time? Nearby is a Commodore PET, this with cassette player memory storage so less likely to be working, and on the floor a racing car game circa 1985 on which you can display your abject lack of prowess. In an adjacent glass case are some old mobile phones... ooh that was my Motorola fliptop, and my workhorse Nokia, but never my Psion organiser. And there's a row of arcade machines too, some priced and some not, where you can relive your childhood if you can get the damned things to work. I so wanted a game of Mr Do, or Mr Ee as I remembered it, but no way could I work out the correct combination of buttons and joystick to make it start.
The second room is the 80s classroom, which as you might guess is full of BBC microcomputers. That's enough BBC microcomputers to seat an entire class (in pairs), and all switched on with the command prompt flashing. Those of us with an 80s pedigree might well be able to sit down and write a competent program, probably involving PRINT and GOTO, while a helpful instruction list awaits those less certain. The room is also kitted out with Raspberry Pis (or whatever their collective plural is), which are the modern era's programming equivalent. It's intriguing how the computing curriculum has recently swung back to how to code rather than how to use, hence a retro facility like this 80s classroom might actually be useful rather than some quaint nostalgic geekfest.
The thirdroom at the museum is by far the largest, a huge shed that's (as yet) a long way from being full. In here is the main collection, approximately themed, with a bunch of office computers down one end and a selection of mainframes and business 'portables' elsewhere. A Sinclair C5 sits in one corner, a Sinclair Spectrum on a central table and a row of coloured iMacs on a top shelf. But it's the games consoles and 80s personal computers that'll probably appeal most. Take a seat and play Pacman (I was pleased to see I'd not forgotten), or Super Mario, or re-engage with a 70s Binatone version of Pong. What's most frustrating is not having a manual to hand to check how to start a game or which keys do up, down and fire, rather than determining this though trial and error (oh damn, I've crashed). Things were much easier back then because you probably only owned one computer gadget, and it only had five games, hence you knew all the moves inside out.
If you're of a certain bent and age, much of the assembled stuff will mean something. I used to have one of those electronic calculators, and my sixth form years were spent on an RM 380Z like that, and my Mum used one of those comptometers in her job, and I remember when programs had to be typed into punched tape and cards like those. If you're younger you may have more trouble relating, except on a historical basis, and may therefore lack the urge to dig in and get involved. Many of the exhibits at The Centre for Computing History have no accompanying information other than what's written on the shell, and a little more labelling would definitely help. I'd have to say that the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park is better and more comprehensive, and a little cheaper too, but this is a much more hands-on experience. And if your inner geek is rated at 92.3 or higher, you'll already be considering a visit. [photos]