The American Computer and Robotics Museum: A gem in the Treasure State

After 25 years it's still going strong.

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Back in 1992, I took a vacation that was centered on getting off the grid. It was my first vacation in five years and I was making an effort to get away from technology. We made plans to stay at a rustic cabin in Montana, north of Yellowstone, and I wasn't taking a computer, cell phone, or pager. What we did do was fly into Bozeman, Montana to start off the trip, and while spending a day there before heading off to the back country, I came across the somewhat presumptuously named American Computer Museum.

At the time I was based in Boston and as Technical Director of PC Week's PC Labs, was well aware of the Boston Computer Museum; the sprawling, big dollar, flashy facility that was there to provide visitors an entertaining and in-depth look at the history of computers. It didn't seem like a small display in a sleepy college town would have much to offer in comparison.

What I was surprised to find was a nice little exhibit of some interesting items that gave a good look at the early days of modern computing. While not on the scale of the BCM, it was an appropriate fit for the smaller college community. The two year old museum was certainly off to a good start.

Twenty-three years later, on yet another rare vacation, I found myself passing through Bozeman once again, and decided to make time to visit the paleontology exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies. You might imagine that I was somewhat surprised to find that the American Computer Museum, now renamed to the American Computer and Robotics Museum, was still in business, celebrating their 25th anniversary. The big name, well-funded, Boston Computer Museum, had not even survived to the new century, closing its doors in 1999, but the small town museum survived, and even grew, now occupying part of an office complex just a few blocks from the Museum of the Rockies.

Rather than just setting up displays and saying "Look at these computer exhibits", the museum attempts to place computing in the social context, with exhibits ranging from a Gutenberg Press reproduction (with authentic printed pages), to the last complete existing computer that was part of the Apollo space program, to displays of iconic robots from fiction and reality. The museum's choices of displays, from their warehouse of collection items, does a good job of showing how computing has evolved as part of civilization, quite often as a driving force, though many times just in an important supporting role.

From video games, to cell phones, to children's cartoons and toys to the beginnings of neural networking, the museum paints a vivid picture of where computing has been and where it might be going. When I stopped by, first thing on a Tuesday morning in mid-August, the Museum (which is free to visit) already had a number of visitors within, ranging from an older couple to whom the technology itself seemed new, but who were fascinated with an exhibit on the Apollo program, to a couple of 20-somethings from Denmark, who had been directed there by their innkeeper. They were carefully perusing the exhibits, often engaging in very animated discourse about what they were seeing.

While Bozeman, Montana, and the American Computer Museum may not be at the top of your list of places to visit, should you be in the region, it is definitely worth your time to stop in and take a look.