The Centre for Computing History (Cambridge computer museum)

Recently a computer museum has opened fairly close to me – called the Centre for Computing History.  It’s run with backing from a few local companies (notably ARM) and takes donations from anyone who may have old equipment that needs a good home.  A guy from work found out about it due to a banner loosely tied to some railings he goes past on the way to work, so like any self respecting geeks a few of us decided to go and see what it was like.

Cambridge is not a cheap place, everywhere you look developers are buying up land mostly to create luxury flats or a seemingly endless collection of cheap travel hotels.  Often these hotels are next to eachother, in fact in two places in the city you have a Premier Inn right next door to a Travelodge, or whatever the other one is.

The end result of this is a lot of older cheaper land is gone and it’s difficult to get anywhere to site something like this.  The museum is located near one of the retail parks, but actually over a railway bridge on some of the most dilapidated industrial land in the whole city.  It’s actually a couple of converted industrial units and quite nice when you get there.

We were shown around by one of the volunteer curators and then allowed to poke and prod whatever we felt like.  It’s an interactive museum, as much of the equipment as reasonably possible is powered on when visitors are there, you’re allowed and encouraged to play around with the machines which makes a nice change from glass cases containing shelf queens.

I decided to donate one of my old machines to them, so went back at the weekend with the machine and a camera.  I wish I’d brought my big flashgun along because the photos came out pretty badly in many cases, the main part of the museum is large and a built-in flash just won’t cut it.

A couple of arcade machines, the two on the left are actually running clone 60-in-1 type boards, then there's a Streetfighter 2 and a Sega Megatech, which is more or less a Megadrive cart based system.

A couple of arcade machines, the two on the left are actually running clone 60-in-1 type boards, then there’s a Streetfighter 2 and a Sega Megatech, which is more or less a Megadrive cart based system.

That old IBM PC in the middle, I've still got one of those somewhere...  You can also see the first PET and the first Apple Mac.

That old IBM PC in the middle, I’ve still got one of those somewhere… You can also see the first PET and the first Apple Mac.


The Apple II with TWIN floppy disk drives. I am a fan of the display stand they’ve found for this.


In the middle there is an awesome Commodore Vic-20, sat next to a terrible embarassing Philips CDI, which flopped. Unlike the Vic.


I’ve no idea what this could do, aside from apparently being used to enter the matrix. Yes I know there’s a sign telling me, but I didn’t have time to stop and read everything.


When I was at school, this is how computer classrooms looked, rows of BBC Model B’s. They often had ROM based word processors installed, but we preferred using them to play Daredevil Dennis and the legendary Chuckie Egg.


Not sure what these are, but under the desk is a woefully undersized dehumidifier and/or heater. Actually this is a problem at the museum because in the larger area things felt a bit clammy on the cold rainy day we visited. I can tell you from experience vintage electronics aren’t a fan of the climate.


Huge old computer setup – they’re hoping to get 3 phase power in so the tape reels can be left spinning as a moving display. Those fridge sized units to the right, that’s where the disk packs go. I didn’t know but my friend from work did from his first job, and it made him feel old. We’re only 7 years apart, shows how fast things change.


Consider these next time you complain about a laptop or smartphone being too heavy. Big fan of the portable C64 on the bottom row. These were considered ‘luggable’ and the older ones actually have CRT screens in them.


The first home computer, an Altair. Bill Gates was involved in writing a basic interpreter for it, if someone had beaten him to it I expect the world would be a different place. Microsoft started here. A dark day indeed.


A PDP 8E, apparently very rare to find one where none of the switches have been broken off. Made by Digital who were pretty huge for a while in high performance computing due to their Alpha line, until slowly fading and being bought by Compaq of all people. What a fall from grace.


And here’s a very early Intel system, I bet this one doesn’t play an annoying tune every time you talk about it. Eight inch floppy drives. Eight.


Next to the old IBM 370 is a Ferranti, I know next to nothing about them – it’s the newest exhibit and was shipped from overseas. Postage won’t have been pretty.


Essentially the forerunner to databases – used for record keeping on punched cards. Probably still faster than Oracle software.


I do like the military spec portable, didn’t have time to read about these.


This resembles my house in terms of wiring and general chaos.


Some smaller business computers, the black one is a Sinclair PC200 which Amstrad made after buying Sinclair – it had no real place in the world and this is the first one I’ve ever seen.


The two in the middle are Apricots, another long dead manufacturer who made PCs which weren’t quite compatible with everything else.


My donation to the museum – a HP Apollo 735, one of the oldest HP9000 machines running HP-UX. Sad story – this had been in storage for 8 years or so, the power supply caught fire when plugged in. I’m going to try to get them a replacement but it won’t be easy. That’s old capacitors for you… Still, it gave some visitors an added value example of the difficulty involved in running this kind of museum.


Miscellaneous business computers.


The black one is the ill fated Sinclair QL. Sinclair didn’t really have much luck after the ZX Spectrum took the world by storm.


I learned to word process on one of these, which I bought from a car boot sale – always liked how the keyboard is contoured to the base – the monitors swivel too.


Rubbish photo – in the pile of calculators is a Little Professor – the ultimate calculator if you were of a certain age.


My university still had some of these on the desks when I started. No I’m not THAT old, my university was just poor.


The machine on the left just looks awesome, the one in the middle is a type of Commodore PET I once owned, the whole white part including monitor and keyboard lifts up like a car bonnet.


Not sure why a SGI monitor is sat there all alone, they were actually rebadged Mitsubishi ones.


SGI Origin – huge things, we had one at my first workplace which was massively more powerful than most of the machines in the building, but due to sheer size ended up being used in a training room only. Challenge server bottom right is cool, I used to own one of those, made a hell of a noise. I had an Indigo too, the blue one on top of it.


Apparently this one can actually be fired up!


Various Apple abominations, the Apple II is much cooler.


Some of the consoles, and yes that is a man actually playing Gunhed in the wild, having not seen it before. Museums truly can bring joy. I had a go myself and then realised that we’d be stuck there all day, since it’s a long game and I can beat it.


Remember when games had to load from cassette? So do I, and I’m sorry you suffered too. It was cheap and practical at the time, but this is one aspect of old computers which I just don’t miss at all. 20 minutes loading and then it fails right at the end. The worst was the C64, you’d never know until it reached the end of the tape, the Atari 800 had the decency to at least make forlorn sounds.


Atari Jaguar…. This looked painfully dated the day it was released.


The man who built the ZX80, ZX81 and ZX Spectrum was an inventor. He invented this, you can guess what happened. This is the famous Sinclair C5, almost like a mobility scooter for people who were able bodied, but wanted to experience the difficulty of not being.


Some legendary tabletop games, I had Caveman on the left.


Kids just want to play Call Of Duty these days, or that famous rape simulator GTA V, or so I’m told. Actually they seemed pretty happy with Pac-Man and Space Invaders, so perhaps all is not lost after all.


Third to the right – the ZX81, I’d forgotten how tiny they are. My parents bought me one as my first computer, at a time when all the kids had C64s and Spectrums. I had one friend poor enough to also own a ZX81. On reflection though, I miss it, I liked that computer. Fun tip – it was so low on memory and performance that to speed up calculations you could put it into ‘fast’ mode, which turned off screen updates until the CPU finished the current operation. If you were typing in a long program, as it got longer the screen refreshes would be so slow that you’d wait a second at a time between keypresses. And that’s when you turned fast mode on, which helped a tiny bit but gave you a headache instead.


Second to the right, the Commodore 64. Awesome machine. Possibly the best of all time.


Almost far right, a hilarious manglement of Megadrive and Amstrad PC, called the … Mega PC. I’ve never seen one of these in the wild before.


The famous ZX Spectrum in the middle, putting affordable computing into millions of homes.


On the right a Commodore C16, not as good as the C64 and ultimately never did too well. The one on the left is the real curiousity – a working SAM Coupe. This was a machine intended to spiritually replace the Spectrum and it was supposed to be backwardly compatible within reason. It was also a failure, the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga had appeared, and when they did they put the entire 8-bit generation to rest.

So there you have it, most of the displayed contents of the Cambridge Computer Museum, although I forgot to get a photo of the ZX80 and a few of the display cases.  If you happen to be in the area I do recommend a visit if only to get a shameful photo taken in the C5 and play a full colour version of Manic Miner on the SAM Coupe.  The people I’ve met there were all very friendly and the entry fee isn’t unreasonable.

You can find their website here:

They also do lab sessions for kids using Rasberry Pi units in the classroom area, this was going on at the weekend but I didn’t get to take a photo of the session unfortunately.  Should teach them Logo instead on the Model B’s, it was good enough for me.