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(Computer) Museums In Switzerland

For such a small country, Switzerland has an extreme love for museums about the most incredible subjects, including some excellent museums dedicated to computer history. These museums feature fantastic collections, gathered and painstakingly maintained by state and private entities and, sometimes, even passionate individuals who devote their lives and budgets to a particular subject.

Hopefully, the following list will give you some ideas for a visit the next time you come to Switzerland.

Let us begin with some famous clichés that define Switzerland in the collective psyche: watches, chocolate, cheese, and Heidi. To start with, we have the Swiss National Museum in Zürich, encompassing all Swiss things. There are (at least) two museums about watches: the Musée d’Horlogerie du Locle and the Musée International d’Horlogerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds. There are at least two museums about Swiss chocolate: the recently opened Lindt Home of Chocolate in Zürich and the Maison Cailler near the Lac de la Gruyère, precisely the origin region of the eponymous cheese. Speaking about it, La Maison du Gruyère tells you everything about the most famous of Swiss cheeses (hint: it does not have holes, that one is Emmentaler; please remember). Speaking about Emmentaler, I could not find a museum about it, but there is an Emmentaler cheese factory you can visit. Another famous local cheese, maybe not that well known outside of our borders, the Vacherin Mont-d’Or also has its museum. You can learn about the Appenzeller cheese in the Appenzeller Museum. Finally, our dear national hero Heidi has a whole village dedicated to her.

Are you interested in Sports? We have the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and the FIFA Museum in Zürich. Toys and games? Visit the Swiss Museum of Games, the Spielzeug Welten Museum in Basel, the Spielzeugmuseum, …and the Extraball flipper museum.

For science and history, we have some epic ones: the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and the Musée d’Ethnographie also in Geneva, the Museo dei Fossili in Meride, the Kulturama museum of human evolution in Zürich, the Electrobroc museum about energy, the Tibet Museum near Gruyères, and the CERN exhibition in Geneva, where you can visit not only the LHC but also see the NeXT computer that served as the first web server.

We have a museum for Einstein (in Bern, of course), for HR Giger (the designer of Alien, in Gruyères), for Tolkien (next to the Heididorf), for Napoléon III, and another for Tinguely, our local master craftsman of Rube Goldberg machines.

Do you like vehicles? Check out the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne, the VolksWrecks Museum, SwissMiniatur in Melide, the Blonay-Chamby Railroad museum, the Miniature Train museum, and the Energy Park museum’s collection of gasoline pumps.

Enjoy art? Hang on tight, you are in for a ride: the Kunsthaus Zürich, the Museum of Fine Arts Bern, the Kunstmuseum Basel, the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, the Fondazione Mecrì in Minusio, the Fondation Pierre Gianadda in Martigny, the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva, the Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana in Lugano, Museum Rietberg in Zürich, Museum Rosengart in Lucerne, the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, the Musei Comunali d’Arte in Ascona, the Musée du Vieux Pays-d’Enhaut in Château-d’Oex, the Musée Charmey in Gruyères… and this list misses a hundred more.

Fan of Architecture? Check out the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel, do not miss the Pavillon Le Corbusier of the Museum of Design in Zürich, designed and commissioned by Heidi Weber, and visit the Teatro dell’architettura in Mendrisio. Also, none other than Mario Botta designed the Tinguely museum mentioned previously; how about that.

Some museums defy all classification: typewriters, bottles, illusions, torture devices, anarchism, witches, Polish culture, dinosaurs, and wallpapers; they all have their museums.

What about museums dedicated to computing? Once again, we have no shortage of those in this country. In particular, we will mention four significant collections open to the public.

First and foremost, the Musée Bolo at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne is not only free, but it also has a collection of thousands of computers of all sizes and kinds since its inauguration in 2002. The Musée Bolo receives regular donations from private patrons, both monetary and in the form of old computing material (computers, peripherals, manuals, etc.), to increase their collection. The museum is open from Monday to Friday from 8 to 19. As a curiosity, this museum provided the NeXT machine used to restore the first WWW browser code in February 2019, with a team celebrating the 30 years of the creation of the World Wide Web.

This time on the German-speaking side of the country, the second computing museum we must mention in this article is ENTER.ch, an institution dedicated to the history of computer and consumer electronics. Located in Solothurn, but soon moving to new and larger premises in the nearby town of Derendingen with the new name of “ENTER Technology World.” It opens every day except Mondays and Tuesdays, in the afternoon during weekdays, and from 10 to 17 on Sundays. The museum features a collection of more than 10’000 objects, a flea market of old computer equipment on some Saturdays, and a vintage electronics shop where you could find that elusive PCMCIA card you have been looking for for ages. The entrance costs 18 Swiss francs, but the museum also depends on donations and patronage.

Not directly related to computers but worth a mention is the Museum of Communication in Berne. This museum has existed in one form or another since 1907, first as the museum of the Swiss Post, and has evolved into a more generic museum about information technology through the years. It shows the evolution of human communication in all forms, Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 to 17. The entrance costs 15 Swiss francs and features a very educational collection, particularly interesting for younger audiences.

The fourth and final Swiss collection of computing material we will talk about is the Erlebniswelt Computergeschichte (in English, the “Computer History Experience World,”) a private collection started in the 1960s by Robert “Röbi” Weiss, an independent software engineer and consultant in the canton of Zürich. This collection of several thousands of objects includes not only devices (the oldest one being 4500 years old) but also components, special unique items, prototypes, software, pictures, films, and documents such as magazines, manuals, price lists, invoices, press releases, advertising, and more. The collection is open on demand to private groups, featuring a guided tour by Mr. Weiss himself and even a friendly “apéro” at the end of the visit. Mr. Weiss, founder of the CORIH (Club Of Rescue IT-History), also published the “Weissbuch,” a yearly report about the PC industry in Switzerland from 1989 to 2015, and last but not least, also offers a print-on-demand poster about the history of computing, updated until 2019. His “Swiss Computer Museums” website is, by the way, a significant inspiration for this section of this article.

Not all countries, however, benefit from such a love for museums.

As I write these lines, the neverending crisis has claimed another victim in my birth country, Argentina. This time is the Museo de Informática, the most extensive collection in Latin America of computing artifacts and history. As recently announced on their Instagram, they decided to close the exhibition permanently. A sadly logical conclusion for the bumpy history of computing in Argentina started in 1960. It was then when Manuel Sadosky, professor and vice-dean of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, assembled and launched the first computer ever in Latin America before fleeing to exile after a series of military governments in 1966 and again in 1974. It is the sincere hope of the author of these lines that a patron will soon help this institution stay afloat despite all odds.

Computer museums play a critical role in an industry that pays very little respect to the work of those that came before us. They help us realize that the old Latin axiom Nihil novum sub sole applies to our craft in sometimes mysterious ways. They help us contextualize new achievements. They allow us to recognize the fundamental challenges ahead of our industry and society, and if anything, they provide valuable ideas about how not to solve them.

Visit your local computer museum. If you have old computing material, consider donating it to these institutions. If you are looking for an enjoyable post-pandemic activity with your work colleagues, book a group visit. In the meantime, check the online Old Computer Museum, learn about design history, watch videos from the Computer History Museum on YouTube, and download old software from the Internet Archive, Vetusware, WinWorld, or Bitsavers, and run it on virtual machines.

Cover photo by Abhijeet Rane on Flickr, showing the BioWall in Musée Bolo.

Continue reading The Digital Dark Ages or go back to Issue 046: Computer Museums. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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