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If The Chips On This Computer Fall, They’ll Break Your Leg

October 19, 1995

BOSTON (AP) _ Like many Americans, Christopher Grotke needs to upgrade his personal computer. But his challenge is ... bigger.

With a microprocessor the size of a hot tub and a mouse that looks more like an elephant, the exhibit designer is putting the finishing touches on a $1 million revamping of The Computer Museum’s walk-through PC.

Opening Saturday, the giant exhibit will allow visitors to figure out how a computer works from the inside. It is accurate down to the number of pins on each microchip.

And unlike its 5-year-old predecessor, it sports all the bells and whistles _ including Pentium chip, CD-ROM drive, Internet link and audio/visual board. It works, too.

``With the old computer, people were looking for interaction and they weren’t getting it,″ Grotke said Wednesday, as he sat on the keyboard’s space bar. ``I want people to do things.″

That should be easy.

Each component or board inside the machine contains interactive video displays that allow visitors to ``be the device,″ exhibits director David Greschler said. ``You’re the one executing the commands.″

Visitors can enter the two-story exhibit through the room-sized printer, or walk down past towering books (``A Tale of Two CD’s″ and ``Moby Disk,″ among other volumes) to the giant trackball.

Once inside, they can stand at a video console by the main microprocessor and simulate a variety of commands. Red lights on the floor trace the route of electrical impulses along each step of the way.

Want to make a sound of a barking dog? First, pull the lever and retrieve the digitalized sound out of hard disk storage. Pull again and send it to the computer’s available memory. A third tug sends it the audio/visual board for decoding. Finally, the sound is played on the computer’s speakers.

Visitors leaving the exhibit can then hold real-sized chips and boards.

It’s a far cry from the days when The Computer Museum opened in 1984 with a collection whose centerpiece was a Whirlwind computer that had been saved from the scrap heap.

``They had glass cases with tubes in them. It was a lot like when you went to a science laboratory and saw lots of gems behind glass,″ Grotke said. ``The approach to designing exhibits has changed a lot since then.″

Called the Walk-Through Computer 2000, the upgrade was underwritten by $250,000 apiece from chipmakers Intel Corp. and Cirrus Logic Inc., plus grants from a dozen other manufacturers whose names _ 50 times their normal size _ appear on replicas of their products. At that scale, a person in the exhibit would be the size of a thumb.

Although the computer is an IBM-compatible PC, the actions it explores are basic enough to apply to Macintosh computers, too.

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