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Heinz Nixdorf Museumsforum: A new old computer for a birthday

On October 24, 1996, Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl opened the largest German computer museum HNF in Padborn in the former company headquarters of the computer manufacturer Nixdorf. For its birthday, the museum is donating a functional replica of the electronic balancer 24 with which the “Heinz Nixdorf Laboratory for Impulse Technology” brought its first series model onto the market in 1953.

The ES 24, equipped with 396 tubes, was able to display 24 decimal places, the true-to-original replica of the successful model with 204 tubes only 12. For this, visitors can assign tasks to the computing device via a touchscreen and are told clearly how the ES-24 works with the sorting machines of the French punch card manufacturer Bull worked together in the day-to-day business of banks and savings banks.

Replica of the ES 24

(Photo: Detlef Borchers)

The functional one Replica of the electronic balancer is intended to convey why Heinz Nixdorf was a pioneer in decentralized data processing with his computers. At the time, he was not interested in a programmable computer, but in a device that banks could use to sort all account movements stored on punched cards at the end of a day and add up debits and credits. The ES 24 was “hard-wired”, so it could only be used for this purpose, but only cost DM 10,000 and was therefore affordable for smaller banks. It processed 42,000 punch cards per hour. The replica consists of two cabinets, the actual balancer with the original tubes and a cabinet with the power supply unit and modern components that control the tubes.

Another “birthday present” is the newly designed entrance area of ​​the museum. Steles are set up here, reminiscent of the black monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. At first they light up blue and explain the “primeval beginning of the information age”, later the sun rises in Mesopotamia. In this way, visitors should be able to experience “the transition from darkness to the beginning of human culture”. Well into the information age, the permanent exhibition Claude Shannen, one of the founders of information theory, is a small monument.

New entrance to the HNF (Image: Detlef Borchers)

Theseus, the intelligent mouse that searches for the way to the food in a pluggable labyrinth and can then “memorize” this way, jerks in one faithful replica through the corridors. Only the telephone relays that Shannon used to save the mouse movements have been replaced by Arduinos. Telephone relays are hard to come by. They can be admired right next to the mouse maze, where a relay-controlled switching system demonstrates how a telephone number used to be dialed.

Last but not least, the richly illustrated new museum guide should be mentioned, which on 256 pages goes far beyond what can be seen in the HNF. Well-known photos like that of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak alternate with photos of office and computer landscapes in the data centers. The “History of the future. A journey through the HNF”, as the museum guide is entitled, is told in the background as a story of women’s work in the offices and data centers. Women sit at the booking machines and punch card punches, in the data centers they stand at the tape machines. The men supervise and check off and a printout – or they just invent all the computers that can be seen in the HNF.


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