Trip report: Centre for Computing History

On Saturday, I went to the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge for an evening of nerdcore (or chip-hop, depending on who you ask) music by MC iPod, The British IBM and Random (a.k.a. Mega Ran). This was my first time visiting the Centre. 

The museum itself

Computing history is a funny thing. Obviously, the tech industry is a neophile world, and I think most people (most people like you and me; I’m sure there are people in the field who’ve been thinking this way since forever) have only recently started thinking about old tech as historically significant rather than obsolete. This is something you see in every historical field; medieval houses in England, for instance, tend to be distributed in areas that saw major economic problems in the late medieval period (if I recall correctly), because otherwise prosperous people just knock down their old thatched eyesores and build new. Everything is obsolete until it’s a priceless historical treasure. 

You can even see this at the museum itself, where there are big boxes of old computer manuals being given away free. Just not enough space to store any but the most important, I suppose. 

So the museum has an impressive collection of early computers, as well various paraphernalia, documents and so on. When I was there, a big screen was also showing Micro Men, a BBC drama about the battles in the early British home computer market. 

Now, I am not enough of a tech connoisseur to tell you what is rare and unusual among these collections — well, except for one field, which I’ll get to in a moment. So here are some of the photos I took. The lighting’s not great, but remember I was at a concert. 

This is the lobby area.
Many of these were on, and MC iPod was amusing himself by programming them to write SATAN when a count reached 666.
I don’t even care what it says, that just cannot be safe. It can’t.
The old school. I have no idea what any of this stuff is, but that’s only because I didn’t want to miss part of the performance and had to hurry back.
Another row of vintage home computers, most of them set up for an evening’s gaming. The one in the bottom right is running Manic Miner, which is an easy way to make a British person of a certain age curse.

The part of the museum I can speak to is its collection of old games, which is wide. They have a collection of arcade cabinets, plus a wide range of consoles from all eras. I didn’t get photos of all of them (often because they were surrounded by gamers), but I played some Super Street Fighter 2 and various console games. Apparently these are just on most of the day and visitors to the museum just hang out and play retro games. There’s also a little snack bar where you can get, er, snacks. Honestly, at £7 a ticket that doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend a free afternoon. Not that I have those, but you know what I mean. 

Just a few of the arcade cabinets. There are several more out of shot, and another half dozen or so in the lobby.
Atari somethingorother, NES, ?Master System, TG16, Genesis/Mega Drive (with CD), SNES.
The original actual physical model from the game Creatures. I like me some dioramas, so I spent some time goggling at this.

So, yes. It is a cool little museum, maybe a bit pricey for its size, but that’s how things go in today’s economy, I imagine. You can buy an actual computer (a Raspberry Pi) in the gift shop. It’s in kind of an out-of-the-way location, tucked in an industrial estate off Coldham’s Lane, so I can’t imagine it gets a whole lot of passing traffic. It does host a lot of special events, including retrogaming nights, programming classes and so on. And it is, of course, one of those special events I was there for!

The show

I had a great time. It was a BYOB event, which I had not realised, but a friend put a beer in my hand the moment I arrived, so many thanks to him (and I owe him one). Also, there’s a supermarket just around the corner, so it was easy to go out to get drinks — and in fact much more affordable than what you’d usually pay at a gig. 

The turnout was OK. A few dozen people for the early shows, probably never more than 100 (and possibly quite a lot less) even by the end. I thought this was a bit of a shame for such a fun event, but I was told that nerdcore shows in Cambridge can draw single-digit crowds. The struggle, it seems, is real. I have to admit that I would never even have heard of the event if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was sat next to MC iPod at a wedding some months ago. Now I am signed up for the mailing list, though, so that’s OK. 

I had a good time and enjoyed the music. I didn’t catch all of The British IBM’s set, because I ran out for drinks toward the end, but I enjoyed what I heard. Honestly, in this day and age of YouTube, what am I gonna do, write a review? Look, here’s everybody: 

I can’t find a good MC iPod online video, but I’ll put one up when I find it. You can check out his music here, though. 

And here’s The British IBM: 

And Mega Ran (who was accompanied by collaborator Mr Miranda): 

I like nerdcore, but it is always on the edge of being novelty music. I didn’t think that was the case with Random at all; he branched out a bit into other topics and he did a really good job tying video game concepts back into broader themes, personal experiences and so on. He sounded like a person who spoke in video game terms because that’s his mythology. Lawrence Miles said this about Doctor Who:

Doctor Who’s my native mythology, that’s all. If you read, say, the work of Salman Rushdie… forget about the blasphemy for a moment, it’s not important right now… there’s a lot of material in there that comes from traditional Indian culture, there are lots of links to Indian mythology. Which doesn’t mean he has to believe in gods with the heads of elephants, obviously. It’s just part of his background, those are the symbols he grew up with. That’s more or less the way I feel about Doctor Who. I’ve got a pretty low opinion of a lot of the original episodes, but it’s still my home territory.

So this is music made by and enjoyed by people for whom geek things are our home territory. I am not a music critic, and you may not like the things I like, but I had way more than £8 worth of a good time. 

The acoustics in what is, after all, a warehouse, weren’t perfect, but the intimate venue was cool. And maybe it’s not OK to say this, but I was sort of glad that the venue wasn’t too crowded so that if I got restless and didn’t want to keep standing in one place for a long time I could wander around and play some games while still listening to the music. This was especially true at the beginning, me being me and liable to be antsy in new social situations. 

I love it when museums do this kind of thing; see also the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, which hosts film nights showing mummy movies both good and … less so. If I could get a Bad Movie Night / retrogame evening at the museum, maybe get some popcorn going … mmm. 

So yeah. Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. It’s pretty good. If they have more of these kinds of things, I will go.

Trip report: Centre for Computing History

2 thoughts on “Trip report: Centre for Computing History

  1. Wow! I had no idea there was a model for Creatures. I wonder what the heck they used it for, the graphics seemed like normal graphics to me. I tested that, and I think I might have done the manual too? And I dressed up as a Creature for that year’s company Halloween contest and won. I’d forgotten that the developer was in the UK. How utterly random.

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