Top 10 automotive technologies in the Computer Museum
The Computer History Museum recently added Ford SYNC in-vehicle connectivity system to its permanent collection. Sarah Butzen took a look at the company it keeps and promptly dozed off.
Posted June 22, 2012
By SARAH BUTZEN, EVERGEEK MEDIA
People, it's happened. I'm serious. Are you sitting down? Well, whatever. Here goes: the Computer History Museum has inducted Ford's SYNC into its collection!
That's right. It's a car thing, but it's in a computer museum, on account of it's got computer stuff in it. I know, I just blew my mind, too.
Why is this such a big deal? I'll tell you why. Look around you. How many of the objects that you see are on their way to becoming computers? Your phone became one ages ago. Your TV has also been one for some time, and so have your books and magazines, possibly. I don't know about yours, but my refrigerator is developing opinions about my food, and my vacuum cleaner needs me less and less. I used to feel that my special talent in the family was getting grass stains out of stuff, but these days the washing machine just pats me on the head and tells me to run along.
Your car has also had a computer in it for quite some time, of course, but it was doing obscure, under-the-dashboard stuff like consulting with the engine about fuel mixture and telling the anti-lock brakes to scare the hell out of you. Now, automakers know that we have become accustomed to being surrounded and to some extent bossed around by computers, and they want us to feel that we're in familiar, comfortable surroundings. So they've brought the computers out in front to help us parallel park, ask us if we want coffee, and make passive-aggressive suggestions about our route. (It's not just me. The GPS does give a little sigh before it says, resignedly, "Recalculating.") And of course, like Ford's SYNC, it allows us to integrate our mobile devices into the car's systems. The automobile is in the process of transitioning from having a computer to being a computer.
What this means is that the Computer History Museum will, one day, be the Everything History Museum. Okay, maybe not. But it certainly has the potential to document this transition from a time in which computers are a discrete object with specific functions, to a time in which computers are the underlying platform for most of the tools that we rely on for daily functioning. SYNC is the first technology to be added to the museum's collection that represents this integration of computing not just into an automobile's functioning, but into the user's whole experience of the car. No wonder Ford's response was "We are honored."
Clearly, though, they can't be the first auto-related technology to be added to the collection - not if the museum wants to document the changing role of computers in non-IT platforms. So what other car-related things are in there? Must be some amazing stuff - I couldn't wait to explore the online catalog. It didn't have a way to search by industry or type of technology, so I entered in the names of various automakers, starting with Ford. You'll never guess what I found.
Seriously, you couldn't guess. And the reason you couldn't is that no one has ever heard of any of this stuff ever. I hereby present:
Evergeek Media's List of the Top Ten Most Obscure Car-Related Items in the Computer History Museum, Ever
That wording may perhaps be a bit misleading - I can't necessarily guarantee that these are the most obscure items, as I had to stop perusing the catalog after a while due to danger of coma. And I applied no algorithm to the ordering of these ten; in fact it would be fair to say that I applied no system whatsoever. No, wait, that's not true. They are ordered by how many times I had to read the description before it was at all clear what the thing was.
10. "Application of modern estimation theory to the design of aided-internal guidance systems." This is a paper written in 1963 for General Motors. It's about…what it says. I bet it's a real barn-burner, but I don't know for sure because the online collection doesn't actually show it, but only asserts that it exists. I bet that on rainy days, the Computer History Museum staff make up items and slip them into the collection list. Why not? No one would ever know.
9. Ford power-train electronic controller. It doesn't say when this thing was made - it's just for a museum, why would they? - but from the picture it looks about fifty years old. Under description, the catalog entry says "Post-It note on object states: PTEC." There you go. If there's anything I love, it's a catalog description entry that doesn't yammer on and on.
8. General Motors' 1970 software package for payroll deduction authorization. Who says this is not a family-oriented museum? Take that, Disneyland.
7. Ford video, 1985: "Probe V Launch." What could that mean? Let's consult the handy description: "This video presents the concept and design of the Probe V automobile, and its subsequent manufacture." Okay, so like the title said. Take that, Avengers.
6. Ford EEC-III electronic engine control. Another extremely efficient description: "Post-It note on object states: EEC-III." Now I want you to know I could have been done with this list reeeeeal quick, because the catalog also contains an EEC-I, EEC-II, EEC-IV, and EEC-V. But I wouldn't do that to you. We've been through a lot together just in the making of this list.
5. Wirefram model of Sutherland's Volkswagen, 1977. Again, pretty much exactly like it says. The description says: "B&W graphic image of a Volkswagen car 'wire view.' Image has vertical dash lines on right and left of image. The left lines have PAUSE . Recto bottom margin: "University of Utah Computer Science." And you know, it doesn't lie. The image does have those things.
4. Training Manual for General Motors' 4th Annual Midwest Quality Control Conference. Maybe it's just me, but I think this might be kind of interesting to page through. I don't actually know, though, because this document is not actually accessible through the online catalog. Apparently if you want to see one of these things, you send them a telegram or something, and they carefully remove it from their microfiche collection and send it to you by Pony Express. The pony stays while you look at it, so try to have some hay or something around.
3. Mercedes Benz 1985 circuit module. This one has a bit more meat on its description: "Object is a PCB with a connector, described by donor as: 'This is a voltage regulator module from a 1985 Mercedes Benz, showing several integrated circuits from National Semiconductor and Motorola. One of these circuits was traced to be the failure point of the module.'" So, that's what it is.
2. Mercedes Benz supplemental restraint system, 1980. You could be forgiven for thinking this item might be some kind of restraint system designed by Mercedes Benz around 1980, but you'd still be wrong. What it is, is a cassette tape, upon which a voice is recorded that is describing said restraint system. If you want to hear it, they'll try to work something out; again, best to be prepared with hay or perhaps some carrots.
1. An Evening with Jim Morgan. Believe it or not, this one is actually available through the catalog, in PDF form. It's a transcript of a series of interviews with Jim Morgan, one of the longest tenured CEO's in the Fortune 500 and the Chief Executive Officer of Applied Materials. What makes this of interest is that apparently at some point in the evening Jim mentions Japan and even specifically Toyota, because this transcript is the solitary item that comes up when you search the collection for "Toyota." I guess Toyota hasn't had much computer in its cars. I didn't realize they were so backward.
Now, we can mock and joke, and we did and we will. But the point isn't that the Computer History Museum has silly stuff. It does seem a bit more like an archive than a museum, but obviously they couldn't call it that; "archive" sounds way too dusty and academic for Mountain View, California. You can imagine all of these things playing some role in the development of computing history, and you can imagine historians of technology appreciating the access to these artifacts. Also, it looks like in person the place is pretty cool. It's just the online collection that has this archival vibe.
So it seems a bit weird that Ford's going on about what an honor this is . When being admitted to a club, doesn't the honor of it depend on what company you'll be keeping? How is it so great for Ford to become part of this random group of chips and circuits?
It isn't, really. But what they do like is the chance to distribute press releases in which the word "Microsoft" appears eight times. "Collaboration with Microsoft," "Powered by Microsoft," "Co-developed by Microsoft," "Microsoft + Ford 4 EVA," et cetera.
Translation: Our SYNC system may not work all that well, and it may be bizarrely capitalized given that it doesn't stand for anything, but may we just remind you that it's got a computer in it, and not just any old computer but a computer powered by Microsoft. So, if you can't make it work that's probably on you, unless you think you're smarter than Bill Gates.
Which is fine. I just hope my washing machine never talks to me like that.