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Investigate the 'fifth element' through the wonders of digital technology, from early computers to the development of mobile telephones and robot repairs.

In classical and medieval science, aether was said to be the fifth element, the unknown ‘other’ that linked us together. Elements of #EdSciFest uses Aether to explore the digital realm, so step back in time with us to discover some classic examples of computer and communication technology that helped get us to the smartphones of today.

From punch cards to mystery parts

In 2019 Laura Gibson, our Assistant Curator of Science, began creating an inventory of our computer collection in storage – her blog post gives an insight into the scale of that challenge, and the size of old computers!

Model of the ICT Atlas Computer, 1/16 scale made c. 1964

Shrinking technology

What was your first personal experience of using a computer? On a clunky trolley wheeled into the school classroom perhaps, or maybe waiting forever while simple 2D games loaded up on screen via a cassette player? Why not share your memories with the younger generation as you peruse a selection of personal computers in our collections?

Commodore PET computer, 2001 series from the first generation of computers, Commodore, USA, c. 1977.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer made by Sinclair Research Limited, United Kingdom, c. 1983.

Apple Power Macintosh G3 series tower computer, by Apple Computer, Inc, 1999.

Laptop computer, OLPC (One Laptop per Child) X01, designed in USA, made in China, 2008.

BBC B computer, made by Acorn Computers, Watford Electronics and Cumana, c. 1980.

Apricot F2 computer made by Apricot Scotland Ltd, Glenrothes, Fife, 1985 - 1989.

And monitor to go with G3 computer, 1999.

First generation iPad tablet computer, 16GB, with wi-fi, glass, plastic and metal, designed by Apple Inc. 2010. 

The minerals in your mobile

Mobile phones have also come a very long way since their introduction in the 1980s.

Motorola DynaTAC 8000S mobile phone, branded British Telecom, 1985.

As their design has developed and their capacity for communicating has expanded exponentially, so their impact on our planet has increased dramatically. From batteries to circuit boards, microphones to touchscreen glass, every part of today’s smartphones uses elements found in the Earth’s mineral resources to make them work.

This fascinating resource matches up beautiful images of minerals from the museum with the ways they are used in mobile technology. In a world of never-ending consumer upgrades, how long can the planet continue to feed our desires?

Robot repairs

On a more lighthearted note, here’s a slightly old-school computer game which was created by Computer Games Design students at Glasgow Caledonian University in 2019, to accompany our Robots exhibition. Can you help fix the broken robots?

Part of: Elements of #EdSciFestEdinburgh Science Festival logo

Header image: An example of a punch card.

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