Where PCs Were Born

Albuquerqueyep, Albuquerqueis where it all began. A new exhibit goes all the way back to show how far we've come

It sits on a desk, mysterious and mute, a relic from a bygone era. The UNIVAC 1 console is just 54 years old, but in techno-time, that's an eternity. This remnant of the first commercial computer, which in its entirety would fill a single-car garage, is just one of the objects preserved for posterity in STARTUP: Albuquerque & the Personal Computer Revolution, a new 4,000-square-foot permanent exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

Why Albuquerque? That's where STARTUP's biggest benefactor, Paul Allen, and fellow geek Bill Gates launched Microsoft (MSFT ) in 1975. They chose the city to be close to their first partner, Ed Roberts, who ran Micro Instrumentation & Telemetry Systems, better known as MITS. It was the MITS Altair 8800, which Allen read about in the January, 1975, issue of Popular Electronics, that inspired him. (The machine and an original copy of the magazine are both in the museum.) Before Microsoft, Allen was a programmer at Honeywell in Waltham, Mass., and Gates was an undergrad at Harvard. (He famously dropped out.) Two years after Roberts sold MITS in 1977, Allen and Gates moved Microsoft to Seattle, their hometown.

The exhibit includes a video detailing the history of PCs as well as Spacewar!, one of the earliest computer games, which was developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. But the best displays are the ancient machines that launched the computer era.

One highlight is the Traf-O-Data computer Allen and Gates built in high school for their first venture. It measured traffic flow and recorded the data on punched tape. "It was hellacious to get that thing working," Allen recalls. "I guess it convinced Bill and me not to get into the hardware business."

The museum has a strong Microsoft presence, but Apple (AAPL ) and IBM (IBM ) get their due. You can see a Steve Wozniak-designed Apple 1, circa 1976, one of only 200 sold. Also on display: a copy of the 1931 edition of Songs of the IBM, a company collection of tunes that includes such toe-tappers as March on with IBM. There are separate nods to Linux creator Linus Torvalds, free-software champion Richard Stallman, and Microsoft's current nemesis, Google. (GOOG )

Albuquerque seems light-years away from the computer industry, but STARTUP reminds us that it's where an important piece of its history began. Says Allen: "It takes me back."

You can't go to Albuquerque and not eat Southwestern food. Two of the area's best restaurants are virtually a sandstone's throw from the museum. Ambrozia Cafe & Wine Bar at 108 Rio Grande Blvd. NW in Albuquerque's quaint Old Town puts a modern spin on the classics, including mole-braised duck enchiladas with cranberry pear chutney and queso fresco. A popular local lunch place is Duran Central Pharmacy at 1815 Central Ave. NW. The cash-only counter in the back offers a winning green chili stew and homemade tortillas. If you can bear the wait, the food is phenomenal.

By Jay Greene

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