Pisa's tower of computer babel

September 12, 1997

In the 1950s, Nobel-winning physicist Enrico Fermi spurred Italy to build its first electronic computer. That machine, a vast construction of tubes, transistors and electro-mechanical switches, will be one of the prize exhibits of the University of Pisa's National Museum of Calculating Machines.

The museum, which should open to the public in late 1998, is the brainchild of Roberto Vergara Caffarelli, professor of relativity and lecturer in history of physics at Pisa's department of physics.

"A few years ago we realised we had masses of scientific instruments from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries just lying around gathering dust and getting damaged and occasionally disappearing," he says.

"We decided to catalogue and conserve them. Some are beautiful examples of craftsmanship. We planned a museum, and then had the idea of a museum just for computers, with machines from the mechanical days of computing right up to the present. Information technology is the industrial revolution of this century, after all, and deserves a museum to itself."

Professor Vergara Caffarelli broadcast an appeal for donations of historic calculators and computers, and they have poured in from Italy and abroad. He has also tried to track down the technicians who worked on them, often in "computer languages" which today have been completely forgotten.

"There is definitely an element of archaeology. We have recordings of data, texts and calculations which nobody can read anymore. Part of our job is to re-learn these dead languages, to bring back to life and make available the work of scientists from 20, 30 or 40 years ago. It is fascinating work, and makes you realise just how ruthless the rapid evolution of computer technology has been in erasing the past."

The museum has purchased Italy's largest collection of mechanical calculators, machines which Professor Vergara Caffarelli describes as "of breathtaking beauty". The oldest is a Thomas Aritmometre from 1850. A number of electro-mechanical machines from the 1920s and 1930s have also been obtained.

The museum will include research facilities, a library containing printed and non-printed matter, manuals, books on computers, scientific publications, a restaurant and the inevitable shop selling computer-related gadgetry and souvenirs to visitors.

"We will, of course, also offer visitors the latest technology," says the professor. "They will be able to make a virtual-reality tour through the entire museum, so they can decide what they are most interested in, before they begin their actual visit."

The Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti di Calcolo has its own web-site: http://www.difi.unipi.it/museo, where a virtual tour of the buildings can be found.

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