The Centre for Computing History, Cambridge, England

by WordChazer

A dedicated band of individuals maintain, demonstrate and exhibit old computing technology from a base in eastern England.

One of the major exhibitors at the Vintage Computer Festival at Bletchley Park in June 2010 was The Centre for Computing History.

Documenting the history of computers from the first home computing machine, the Altair 8800 in 1975, to the modern day, the museum currently under construction in Cambridge will be a treasure trove of retro machinery. Formerly based in a warehouse in Haverhill, Suffolk, and operating a policy of visits by appointment only, the team decided that the time was right to move into dedicated premises and make some of the collection open to public viewing. True, visits to Haverhill were easily arranged by e-mail or phone, but the founder wanted something more than a small location known only to a few. These are items which have been used widely in TV and film shoots, so they needed a bigger stage to show their fame.

Personal Computers, Servers and Calculators Among the Collection

A Sinclair C-5The Centre is, at time of writing, privately funded by corporate sponsorship, which allows for frequent acquisitions of new machinery. Additions have included the 1967 BCL Susie, the Acorn System 1 and the SGI Origin 2000 server along with a number of other SGI machines.

There is also a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a PalmPilot from 1997 and a Casio fx-570 calculator among the collection. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Centre provided much of the equipment used in the filming of Micro Men, the drama about the early days of Sir Clive Sinclair’s empire, much of which was filmed in Cambridge. This included the Sinclair C-5 which was on display at the Vintage Computer Festival.


The Centre for Computing History Makes a Name for Itself in the Media

In fact, the Centre has a distinguished pedigree when it comes to films and TV. The IT Crowd, which ran for four series, used their stock extensively, and the staff were often called upon as technical advisors as well as being asked to provide the gadgets. Past clients have included the BBC, ITV and the Gadget Show, to name but three.

Working computers for demonstrations or old machinery as props can be hired at daily, weekly or monthly rates and the Haverhill warehouse itself has previously been used as a film location.

It is hoped to continue this ability with the new museum site in Cambridge, with the added incentive that many of the places frequented by the pioneers are still accessible close by, from the Cambridge Computing Laboratory to the Baron of Beef pub.

An Exhibition of Working Retro Technology

The team can also be hired to run an interactive stand at any given event, as long as electricity, basic lighting and, ideally, display facilities are supplied. This provides schools with a great chance to allow children to touch equipment they may only have previously read about or seen on the TV and gives adults a good laugh and an opportunity to relive the days of their youth challenging each other on the vintage machinery.

The classroom facility at the new museum is currently under development, and will be a place where children can learn about BBC BASIC coding on original BBC Micro machines.

The BBC Model B Micro, school computer to many.
The BBC Model B Micro, school compute...
BBC micro:bit micro-controller with motion detection, compass, LED display and Bluetooth

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BBC2546862 micro:bit go

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A Timeline of Technology

One of the most interesting pages on the website is the Computing Timeline page, which details important milestones in the history of computing, from the invention of algorithms by John Napier in 1614 to the intriguing fact that the first tweet on a Commodore Vic 20 was sent to Twitter on 20 February 2010. (The Spectrum’s version of the Twitter client was on show – and in use – at the Vintage Computer Festival in June 2010.)

Console Gamers Well Catered For

Gamers will find their needs extensively met at the Centre for Computing History, as there are a wide range of consoles in the collection, ranging from relatively obscure units by Conic, Fairchild and Innovator Electronics to the household names of Nintendo, Sega and Sony.

Several variants of calculator are also in the collection, from comptometers and slide rules to the more familiar electronic calculators.

In addition, there is an archive listing on the website which can be searched in a number of different ways. This is not simply a listing of artifacts on display, but also lists paperwork such as circuit diagrams, manuals and advertisements.

Tatung Einstein TC-01
Tatung Einstein TC-01
Commodore VIC-20 in a vibrant shade of blue!
Commodore VIC-20 in...
Atari 2600
Atari 2600

Donations of Equipment, Volunteer Time and Money Always Welcome

The Centre always welcomes donations of vintage equipment, including computers, peripherals, software and manuals, but it is better to contact them to discuss delivery. In addition, the team is always in search of UK premises willing to become ‘drop off points’ where items can be left for them to pick up at a later date.

The Centre for Computing History is a lovingly maintained source of archive technological equipment. It is, however, more than a static museum, due to the organisation’s connections with TV, media and exhibitions.

Presently the Centre is looking for more enthusiastic volunteers to help set up and run the new location in Cambridge. Andy Taylor, contact details below, will be able to advise further but anyone with a skill or trade related to electronics, computing, building, refurbishment or event staffing is particularly welcome.

Thanks to Andy Taylor from the Centre for Computing History for use of the photographs. These and more are contained within his Retro Computers' Photostream on flickr. More details available on his Retrocomputers website.

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This article originally appeared on on 23 September 2010. It was removed at the writer's request in February 2013, and appears here with slight revision and additional photographs.

Updated: 12/25/2013, WordChazer
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DerdriuMarriner on 06/27/2017

WordChazer, What is the oldest item in the museum's collection?

WordChazer on 05/20/2014

Thank you, Chevril. My husband and I spend a lot of time at the museum, either working or just enjoying ourselves hanging out. I find it's a very inspiring place to write as well, so the laptop comes with me and I hole up in the office when I'm done giving myself aching thumbs!

chevril on 05/20/2014

Man, I feel old! It's hard to believe its museum time, but I think it sounds great. The history of personal computers is really fascinating. My family was lucky enough to get one of the early Commodore PETs back in the 1970's. It was so exciting, because there was the feeling that it was just the beginning of something very big.

WordChazer on 09/18/2013

It's a great place to volunteer too, especially for an introverted type like I am outside of work. Many geeks are similar so we're all happy together.

cmoneyspinner on 09/18/2013

Cool! Visiting that museum would be a great way to spend my day!

WordChazer on 09/14/2013

We'd be happy to have it, Tolovaj! Mum just needed a new phone to replace hers which is museum-bound, so I gave her one of my old Nokias. She thinks it is eleventymillion shades of awesome, but in fact it's only a couple of years old.

Tolovaj on 09/14/2013

A lot has happened since first home computers. I still remember debate about Spectrum 16K and 48K and how much better is 48K which actually could deliver more than many later computers with 1Mb memory. Now I have a mobile phone with 2Gb memory and it is outdated for above five years... Perhaps I should donate it to the museum?

WriterArtist on 06/22/2013

It is amazing to see how computers have evolved. Now we have computers doing calculations beyond a human brain can contemplate and robots carrying out chores that were
impossible before.

WordChazer on 05/05/2013

It's even funnier trying to play some of them now, Paul. I used to be quite good back in the day...

pkmcr on 05/05/2013

Very interesting and always good to learn something new. Some of the retro technology certainly brought back memories!

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