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Making computing exciting

Over the last couple of years, I have visited three different museums of computing. NSBBQ in 2009 and 2010 visited the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park and the Museum of Computing in Swindon respectively. At this year’s WWDC I got the chance, along with a great group of friends, to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

While each has its interesting points, each also has its disappointments. My principle problem is this: most of the kit is switched off. Without a supply of electrons and an output device, most computers from my childhood just look like beige typewriters. Earlier computers look like poorly thought out hi-fi equipment, or refrigerators that Stanley Kubrick tarted up to use as props. The way you find out just how much computers have advanced over the last few decades is not by looking at the cases: it’s by using the computers.

If you’re anything like me, you keep track of your finances and tax return figures in Numbers. Now imagine doing it in Visicalc. Better still: try doing it in Visicalc. Or take your iOS app, and implement the core features in Microsoft BASIC (or MC6809 machine code, if you’re feeling hardcore). Write your next blog post in PenDown. It’s this experience that will demonstrate just how primitive even a 15 year old desktop computer feels. And the portables? See if you can lift one!

Of course, complaining is the easy part. Fixing it is harder. Which is why I’m now a volunteer at the Swindon museum of computing, on the team that designs the gallery. My main goal is to make the whole experience more interactive. In the short term, this means designing programming challenges for kids to try out: let’s face it, if we want more children to be interested in programming, we need to make programming more interesting to children. I certainly don’t relish the prospect of becoming a portable brain in a pickle jar just because the next generation doesn’t know any objective-c.

So it won’t happen overnight, but if I’m at all successful then we should be able to make the museum gallery more interactive, more educational, and more fun. To find out how it’s going, follow @MuseumComputing.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Oliver | July 1, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Have you got any easy ideas to get kids interested in programming? I grew up hacking on a ZX81 and a Spectrum, so I got a speccy on ebay for my kids to play around with – but then it died… I never had to boot up a machine and load a special interpreter/compiler, just switch it on and start to type, so I thought that would remove that barrier. But then my kids asked how they could watch videos on it, or play Moshi Monsters (a flash-based online game).

    Any advice appreciated – I don’t want my children to just be passive consumers of computing!

  2. Michal | July 1, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    Hey Oliver,

    Just this week I released my first iPad app “Coders” that tries to give you and your kids exactly that what ZX gave us when we were young. Give it a try on the AppStore.


  3. Graham Lee | July 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Oliver, the museum has already had success with teaching programming to children using Scratch ( It’s a very visual system, where children create storyboards that are part drag-and-drop flowchart, and part LOGO-like programming language.

    I think it’s a mistake to think that just because you and I were engaged by hacking on 1980s micros, the way to engage people is to make them hack on 1980s micros. People living in 2011 (rightly) have much higher expectations of computing, and spending two hours typing a BASIC program that lets you turn the screen blue and play a ghastly rendition of In the Hall of the Mountain King no longer cuts the mustard.

  4. Edward Marczak | July 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Oliver – I’m in total agreement with all of your points. One recent app for the iPad that’s close is Coders: There are also basic programming environments for OS X, too (like Chimpmunk BASIC, and variants of LOGO).

    Maybe you have the right approach, though, in finding older machines on eBay. Another Spectrum, or Commodore 64 would really be perfect first machines for someone.