Explore Pioneering Software at the Computer History Museum – IEEE Spectrum

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Its director of curation on preserving Smalltalk and other source codes
The Computer History Museum is one of the most well-known institutions of its kind. Located in Mountain View, Calif., the museum chronicles the impact of computing and technological innovation through artifacts and through archived films, photographs, and documents. The staff conducts oral histories, hosts live events, and curates exhibits.
All its work wouldn’t be possible without the museum’s experienced historians of technology. One is David C. Brock, director of curatorial affairs, who also heads the museum’s Software History Center. His research focuses on histories of computing, electronics, semiconductors, and software. He has conducted more than 200 oral histories of pioneers in the fields.

Computer History Museum Stats

Membership 12,000 supporting members and 55,000 e-mail subscribers

Website traffic Visitors from more than 200 countries and territories worldwide, with approximately 7 million views annually

Social media 167,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, and Twitter

YouTube 3.4 million annual views of its 1,656 videos, 125,000 subscribers, and 18 million views since launch

Membership 12,000 supporting members and 55,000 e-mail subscribers
Website traffic Visitors from more than 200 countries and territories worldwide, with approximately 7 million views annually
Social media 167,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, and Twitter
YouTube 3.4 million annual views of its 1,656 videos, 125,000 subscribers, and 18 million views since launch
The IEEE associate member has been with the museum since 2016 and has curated exhibits and events while regularly publishing historical essays.
One recent project he’s excited to be working on is the “Art of Code” exhibition, which is scheduled to run through next year. Exploring how software is developed, the exhibit also considers its impacts.
“The ‘Art of Code’ is an opportunity for us to hold events around releases of some important historical source code for the first time,” Brock says. Visitors will be able to look behind the scenes of creating computer code, see how the software works, and realize how the code was organized.
Brock says he believes it’s important to make the source code available for historically important programs as “an object for study, just like other objects in a museum.”
“These historical source code releases are something that’s unique to the Computer History Museum,” he says.
The “Art of Code” kicked off with the September celebration of the 50th anniversary of Smalltalk. The programming language and environment was developed at Xerox Parc, in Palo Alto, Calif.
“The Smalltalk approach to computer programming and computer languages is called object-oriented programming, and it has been highly influential,” Brock says. “Many of the most commonly used programming languages today embody this object-oriented programming approach.”
The pioneers who developed Smalltalk discussed its impact during a museum event. (You also can read IEEE Spectrum’s Q&A with Adele Goldberg, one of the developers, about the influence the language has had on programming.)
This month the museum plans to release the source code for Adobe’s PostScript, which played a key role in the digital revolution in printing and publishing, Brock says.
The source code for Apple’s Lisa, the predecessor to the Macintosh, is set to be exhibited next month. Brock says that although Lisa wasn’t a commercial success, it was important in establishing the graphical user interface as we know it today.
“The Lisa computer introduced the whole idiom of the desktop, folders, and the ‘What you see is what you get’ type of word processors,” he says. WYSIWYG shows users how content will appear on a printed page, without the need for additional coding.
Brock grew up during the rise of personal computers and computer networking. He says he used to have a simplistic view of science and technology, assuming there was “a straightforward scientific method—that science just gets transferred over into new technologies.”
It wasn’t until he studied logic and the philosophy of science at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., that he “became fascinated by how important technology is for society and culture but how little we understand how it develops and evolves,” he says. “That’s what got me interested in looking to the past to understand how science and technology work.”
He went on to earn a master’s degree in the sociology of scientific knowledge from the University of Edinburgh and another master’s in the history of science from Princeton.
“At first, I looked at technology from a philosophy of science point of view,” he says. “In subsequent studies, I looked at it from a sociological point of view.” What he learned, he says, is that the history of technology is fundamentally about people.
Before joining the Computer History Museum, Brock worked for 17 years at the Science History Institute, in Philadelphia. One thing he noticed there was that the contributions of those working on the chemistry, chemical engineering, and material sciences of integrated circuits and semiconductors were underappreciated.
He decided to conduct oral histories with the pioneers of semiconductor electronics, including Intel cofounder Gordon Moore.
That led Brock to coauthor several books including Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary andMakers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor. He also wrote and helped produce several documentaries, including Moore’s Law at 50 and Scientists You Must Know: Gordon Moore.
Brock has collaborated with the IEEE History Center and the IEEE Santa Clara Valley (Calif.) Section on the IEEE Milestones program, which recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world. On 11 September 2021, IEEE and the Computer History Museum held an event to commemorate 11 milestones in Silicon Valley. They included Shakey the robot, the RISC and SPARC chips, and the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. The museum has a dedicated wall where many IEEE Milestone plaques are displayed.
Brock is an active IEEE volunteer. He has served on IEEE Spectrum’s editorial advisory board and the IEEE Computer Society’s history committee. His articles for Spectrum include a profile of superconducting pioneer Dudley Buck and a look at the origins of PowerPoint. He is on the editorial board of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.
“My role in IEEE is interesting: a historian contributing to this community without a formal background—or employment—in electrical engineering,” Brock says. “What I’ve continually enjoyed is how much interest there is in history among IEEE members, and how history can connect and instruct these communities.”
Kathy Pretz is editor in chief for The Institute, which covers all aspects of IEEE, its members, and the technology they're involved in. She has a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., and holds a master's degree in corporate and public communication from Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.
Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system
Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.
If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.
Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.
Ayar Labs, has succeeded at drastically miniaturizing and reducing the power consumption of the kinds of silicon-photonics components used today to sling bits around data centers through optical-fiber cables. That equipment encodes data onto multiple wavelengths of light from an infrared laser and sends the light through a fiber.
Avicena’s chiplet couldn’t be more different: Instead of infrared laser light, it uses ordinary light from a tiny display made of blue microLEDs. And instead of multiplexing all the optical data so it can travel down a single fiber, Avicena’s hardware sends data in parallel through the separate pathways in a specialized optical cable.

Ayar has the weight of history on its side, offering customers a technology similar to what they already use to send data over longer distances. But Avicena, the dark horse in this race, benefits from ongoing advances in the microdisplay industry, which is predicted to grow 80 percent per year and reach US $123 billion by 2030, fueled by a future full of virtual-reality gear and even augmented-reality contact lenses.
“Those companies are two ends of the spectrum in terms of the risk and innovation,” says Vladimir Kozlov, founder and CEO of LightCounting, a telecommunications analysis firm.
Avicena’s silicon chiplet, LightBundle, consists of an array of gallium-nitride microLEDs, an equal-size array of photodetectors, and some I/O circuitry to support communication with the processor it feeds with data. Twin 0.5-millimeter-diameter optical cables link the microLED array on one chiplet to the photodetectors on another and vice versa. These cables—similar to the imaging cables in some endoscopes—contain a bundle of fiber cores that line up with the on-chip arrays, giving each microLED its own light path.
Besides the existence of this type of cable, Avicena needed two other things to come together, explains Bardia Pezeshki, the company’s CEO. “The first one, which I think was the most surprising to anyone in the industry, is that LEDs could be run at 10 gigabits per second,” he says. “That is stunning” considering that the state of the art for visible-light communication systems just five years ago was in the hundreds of megahertz. But in 2021, Avicena researchers revealed a version of the microLED they dubbed cavity-reinforced optical micro-emitters, or CROMEs. The devices are microLEDs that have been optimized for switching speed by minimizing capacitance and sacrificing some efficiency at converting electrons to light.
Gallium nitride isn’t something that’s typically integrated on silicon chips for computing, but thanks to advances in the microLED-display industry, doing so is essentially a solved problem. Seeking bright emissive displays for AR/VR and other things, tech giants such as Apple, Google, and Meta have spent years coming up with ways to transfer already-constructed micrometer-scale LEDs to precise spots on silicon and other surfaces. Now “it’s done by the millions every day,” says Pezeshki. Avicena itself recently purchased the fab where it developed the CROMEs from its Silicon Valley neighbor Nanosys.
Computer makers will want solutions that will not just help in the next two to three years but will give reliable improvements for decades.
The second component was the photodetector. Silicon isn’t good at absorbing infrared light, so the designers of silicon-photonics systems typically compensate by making photodetectors and other components relatively large. But because silicon readily soaks up blue light, photodectors for Avicena’s system need only be a few tenths of a micrometer deep, allowing them to be easily integrated in the chiplet under the imaging-fiber array. Pezeshki credits Stanford’s David A.B. Miller with proving, more than a decade ago, that blue-light-detecting CMOS photodetectors were fast enough to do the job.

The combination of imaging fiber, blue microLEDs, and silicon photodetectors leads to a system that in prototypes transmits “many” terabits per second, says Pezeshki. Equally important as the data rate is the low energy needed to move a bit. “If you look at silicon-photonics target values, they are a few picojoules per bit, and these are from companies that are way ahead of us” in terms of commercialization, says Pezeshki. “We’ve already beaten those records.” In a demo, the system moved data using about half a picojoule per bit. The startup’s first product, expected in 2023, will not reach all the way to the processor but will aim to connect servers within a data-center rack. A chiplet for chip-to-chip optical links will follow “right on its heels,” says Pezeshki.
But there are limits to the ability of microLEDs to move data. Because the LED light is incoherent, it suffers from dispersion effects that restrict it to about 10 meters. Lasers, in contrast, are naturally good at going the distance; Ayar’s TeraPHY chiplets have a reach of up to 2 kilometers, potentially disrupting the architecture of supercomputers and data centers even more than Avicena’s tech could. They could let computer makers completely rethink their architectures, allowing them to construct “essentially a single computer chip, but building it at rack scale,” says Ayar CEO Charlie Wuischpard. The company is ramping up production with its partner GlobalFoundries and is building prototypes with partners in 2023, though these are not likely to be made public, he says.
Kozlov says to expect many more competitors to emerge. Computer makers will want solutions that will “not just help in the next two to three years but will give reliable improvements for decades.” After all, the copper connections they are seeking to replace are still improving, too.

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