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The right 'stuff' displays computer history

By Neal McChristy
02-Mar-00

Bergin From early computer language to the IBM 1401 to a display about the ENIAC, the American University Computing History Museum has a history that depicts not only the many facets of calculator and computer history, but is also a historical mirror of the man who put it together.

Thomas J. "Tim" Bergin, who is director and curator of the museum in Washington, D.C., started his addiction for "stuff" - as he calls his collection - and the history and language behind computers in the '60s.

Bergin, a computer expert for the federal government in the mid-'60s, described himself showing students how to calculate the value of Manhattan Island using FORTRAN II on an IBM 1401. Two books were given to him by students, Bergin said, and "from such small events was an addiction born.

"I was hooked. If I heard about anyone contemplating retirement, I would go and introduce myself and ask if they had anything from the past that they were going to throw away. In some ways, I thought of myself as a computer conservationist.

"Since that time, I have sought and collected literally hundreds of items (probably closer to 1,000) including old books and pamphlets, mechanical calculating devices, and a wide range of artifacts of early computer systems. It is important to note that as people learned of this hobby, they would send or bring me things, and my collection of stuff grew. My file of 'thank-you' letters is well over an inch thick."

AdderA front panel gift
After leaving the federal government in 1982, Bergin started teaching at American University. In the process of explaining the background on the IBM 1401, and knowing its scarcity, he told students he would like to have the front panel from one before he died. He later found one leaning on his office door furnished by a student.

"From this point on," Bergin said, "I became more aggressive in my searching and actively talked to my old colleagues at the VA and other government agencies trying to find materials on the early days of computing."

He scrounged through antique shops, too. His office was one of those where a visitor would remark, "Gee, this looks like a museum in here." Departments were merged and Bergin began teaching courses at the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems at American University.

ACMRoad to becoming a curator
At this point, "two separate incidents converged to result in the Computing History Museum, Bergin said. The 50th anniversary of computing was to be celebrated in Philadelphia 1995 by the Association for Computing Machinery(ACM). That was where the ENIAC (Electronic Numeric Integrator and Computer) was built in Philadelphia from 1943-46. Bergin was asked to commemorate the event and supplied part of the display, "sharing my collection, and my (by now) hobby of collecting computer artifacts with some of the top people in the computing field."

In the next year, the display was shown six times at professional conferences, including in the Bender Library at American University. "Without knowing it," Bergin said, "I had really become a curator."

The CSIS department was housed in Clark Hall. The removal of two ATM machines resulted in some space in the foyer and Bergin asked to build a museum there. It was granted - along with the University architect to help.

Entrance'Serendipitous' events
Several of what Bergin calls "serendipitous" events happened later. A student in his computer history class said the Graduate Student Association had money to contribute. The owner of a local glass shop built custom-designed, museum-quality display cases for the museum.

The two rooms of the museum hold replicas of the photo display prepared for the ACM in 1995. The first case is devoted to calculation, the second case to the first generation of computing, the third to second and third-generation computers and the fourth about programming languages.

Sloan project and others
In the fall of 1998, the museum received a two-year grant from the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation to capture the history of programming languages and software engineering. The same foundation funded a proposal to establish HoTNET: A History of Technology Network,, under construction, one of 20 active Sloan projects.

Other projects include a database. A summer workshop on the history of computing is in the works, as is an outreach program for schools.

The museum, Bergin says, "has taken the kindness of more than fifty generous donors to populate its displays and shelves, and the boundless energy and enthusiasm of 20 or more students over the past five years - to make it a reality. For all of their efforts, I am most grateful."

Web site: American University Computing History Museum


 
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