OMSI Watches Computers Grow Up

First, barely a mention. Next, a short meeting or two. Within a few years, labs, field trips, seminars, workshops, and pages of possibilities – and then barely a mention. So went the integration of computers into the psyche of OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). OMSI was one of the first organizations in the country, and maybe the world, that paid attention to what many considered a fad. And now, computers don’t generate as much attention because they have been so well integrated that we no longer shine spotlights on them. The people at OMSI helped their members then, and they are helping HCLE now.

HCLE’s founder, Liza Loop, and I are in Portland, Oregon attending the Museums and the Web conference (MW2013). Being within walking distance of OMSI was definitely a bonus.

OMSI was nice enough to let Liza Loop spend hours (I helped a bit) sifting through decades of records. The staff had even found a volunteer to collect newsletters and quarterly catalogs back into the sixties. Then, four of the staff offered their conference table as a temporary work space. Hours later, dozens or hundreds of photos had been taken to document OMSI’s public relationship with computers.

I was intrigued by what I found. Every time we found a mention of computers or programming, especially if education was specified, we took a photo of the page. In the early sixties there was very little. Flip through a lot of aging paper before setting them aside to be photographed. In the seventies, the mentions were more common, once or twice per newsletter, usually for a recurring meeting or class. There were enough pages to photo that it just made more sense to work standing. By the eighties, there were classes for kids and adults. Instead of a 1 1/2 hour class about computers, there were drawn out courses on specific programming languages. Assembly was taught to adults. Graphics programs were taught to five year olds. OMSI - Science Scope newsletter The course listings went on for pages and my camera’s batteries ran out. But I noticed that it didn’t seem to matter. Within a short while there were fewer photos to take. OMSI had ridden the wave from everyone’s a novice, to crowds dividing out of crowds to specialize in programming versus usage versus general interest, to where we are now.

Now, most people use computers without knowing binary math or assembly. Few have to deal with compilers and motherboards. We know the computers won’t work perfectly, but rather than debug and fix, we leave the diagnostics to experts, who may also not know the fundamentals of the situations they are asked to resolve. We rely on trust, perseverance, and sometimes acceptance of imperfections to get the job done. We’re trusting the computers to the point that, from at least one perspective, we’ve put them in control.

We’ve come a long way in a short time.

OMSI does pioneering work; and, they save their history. By building HCLE’s archive and database with such resources, we’ll be able to better understand how people and organizations adapt to rapid change. Rapid change is now the norm. Looking back at the history of computing in learning and education it becomes obvious that we, as a society, passed through phases; and, that we’ll pass through similar phases in other fields.

OMSI and HCLE use the past to help others adapt to the future. I thank OMSI for their help. They’ve provided a wonderful example of how a few documents can provide rich insights. We worked through dozens of folders. The HCLE collection contains about ten thousand artifacts. We know that many times that is out there in corporate archives, people’s garages, and even in other museums. Many are only stored in people’s minds. We look forward to your stores and stories being added to the HCLE database, and we look forward to the experts who will know the right questions to ask of such a resource.

For now, I’m glad I found some spare batteries, and that leafing through so many old records refreshes my memories of learning FORTRAN, the first time I used a terminal instead of punch cards, and why I was so glad that inkjet printers were so much quieter than the chatter of fan fold and dot matrix.

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