The Mother Unit led its newly-manufactured class into the museum.
“It’s like traveling through time,” the Mother Unit executed. All the little computers laughed in perfect synchronicity.
Deactivated computers hung on the walls to illustrate a lineage of obsolete models. By the door there stood a display of the contemporary 1.5 cubic centimeter computer and its 3.5 ancestor, both in the shadow of an archaic 6.0 centimeter model that had roamed the earth as far back as a month ago. It taxed their RAM to process that there had ever been such hulks.
Next was a diorama of the future computer-being, one centimeter by one centimeter. The class muttered ones and zeroes of envy at its shape, though the Mother Unit dismissed it as an unattainable and unrealistic body type.
They wheeled into a massive display on the Micro-Specialist Age, when technology had taken specific tasks: cameras, music players, and phones that couldn’t even hit their own buttons. Oh, how the students giggled at the idea of a phone that still had buttons.
“Why would it externalize music like that?” queried one little unit, wheeling itself closer to one diorama. “I don’t see the usefulness of those foam-covered speakers or… ear buds?”
It paused, processing the title on the placard.
“Ear buds? What is an ear?”
“Oh, lots of old technology was inexplicably constructed. Natural selection is an ugly and random process,” executed the Mother Unit, before pushing her class on. “See how the primitive camera and text messenger were once separate units?”
Chassis got bigger as the displays went on. There was a gallery of computer towers, some taller, some fatter, some angled forward for no discernible reason. In one row they could see how track lighting had emerged as a trait, exploded to over-abundance in a few years of models, then disappeared altogether. Apparently it was a failed mutation.
The little unit was more interested in the corresponding monitors. They were power inefficient, only getting bigger and higher in definition. One had a warning sticker about looking at it too long being hazardous for “the eyes”. The little unit searched its memory, but no items matched its search for the term.
“When did computers need such big screens to observe data?” the little united queried. “What was the purpose?”
The query went unanswered.
It had more queries, but it silenced itself when the class came to the last room in the museum, housing the skeleton of an ancient calculator. Its bulky mechanisms filled the place wall-to-wall, such that the newly-manufactured class could climb inside and read its obscure paper dispensers.
The Mother Unit narrated, “Those punch cards were the first piece of memory to evolve. You are touching the ancestor of your souls, little units.”
Each little unit got a chance to poke its USB prods inside the punch card holes, to experience what it was like to be a primitive. They ran around inside the mammoth calculator for hours, squealing sequences of numbers and pretending to add. Eventually the museum security units ushered them out, but the little unit disguised itself as a circuit in the inefficient giant’s workings and stayed behind. It kept trying to talk to the punch cards, querying how they’d come to be.
The Mother Unit returned in a moment with the help of the class’s tracking beacon, dragging the little unit from the display. As it was wheeled, it queried.
“Is this really the oldest computer?”
“Yes. The oldest ancestor we know of. It built the rest of us.”
“Where did it come from? It’s so big.”
“It may have come from other computers of its kind, but its kind was the first. They came from themselves.”
“The first computer couldn’t build itself, could it? How could something so big come from nowhere? What designed it?”
“Something else designing computers? And what would do that?” executed the Mother Unit. It dragged the little unit back towards the P.C. Age, joking, “Next you’ll ask if there was ever a two in Old Binary.”
This story originally appeared at Every Day Fiction in 2010.