I can’t remember a time before computers. They’ve always been a part of my life, yet I never considered how little I knew about them until Tuesday.
Exploring the newly expanded Living Computers Museum + Labs in Seattle, I saw the entire evolution of the machines that power our civilization in 2016. The museum, a project of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is home to the world’s largest collection of fully restored and useable vintage computers. But even though the antique computers exhibit told a clear story, I still struggled to follow it.
How could this giant, whirring machine reading paper punchcards be an early ancestor of the iPhone I used to take notes during the tour?
The museum’s team recognized this disconnect. Checking out the vintage relics is a nostalgic experience for visitors if they’ve witnessed the progress of computing over the past few decades, but the museum needed a way to reach new generations.
That was the impetus for 20 new interactive exhibits and three educational labs, which will open to the public Friday. The first floor of the museum, in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood, is devoted to new technology. Visitors can build simple machines, drive around some very cute robots, test out a self-driving car simulator, and play with interactive digital art.
“We wanted to create a space that was welcoming, where people of all backgrounds could come in and get immersed in technology,” said Lath Carlson, the museum’s executive director.
The LCM+Labs is funded entirely by Vulcan, Paul Allen’s investment company. Any proceeds the museum raises are funneled into community and educational programs.
Allen was “very involved” in the museum’s expansion project, according to Carlson, and his footprint is evident on many of the new exhibits. Several of Allen’s passion projects, like ocean and wildlife conservation, are on display. One exhibit showcases how big data can be used to study shark populations. On display nearby is a drone that was used to survey Africa’s elephant populations and hunt down poachers.
The new exhibits are designed to spark interest in technology by showing its practical applications. Students interested in marine biology, robotics, or art can see how computing powers their passions in on the exhibit floor and then learn about the technology in the nearby labs.
The second floor of the LCM+Labs is still devoted to Allen’s vintage computer collection. Those machines have been on display since the museum was founded in 2012.
The expansion is part of Allen’s vision to create a place that inspires students with technology, the way his high school, Lakeside, inspired him and Bill Gates.
“This place is about learning new things, doing work, doing projects,” said Carlson. “This is not a passive museum experience…it’s a museum where we’re encouraging you to create your own things, to solve problems in the world using technology.”