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Bill Gates is donating $15 million to the Computer History Museum, the biggest gift in the history of the Silicon Valley institution, which maintains the world's largest collection of computing artifacts.
The gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will help the Mountain View museum reach its goal of raising $125 million for educational programs and a long-term endowment.
John Toole, the museum's executive director, said the donation is significant because it comes from "a key person in the industry."
"Collecting dollars in the past few years has been really tough for nonprofits," he said in an interview. "What this does is really empower us. ... People have asked, 'Is Bill Gates involved (in the museum)?' Now, Bill Gates is involved."
Before the Gates donation, the biggest gift the museum had received was $10 million from Silicon Valley investor Eric Hahn, founding partner of Inventures Group and former chief technical officer for Netscape Communications.
The museum will also use the Gates donation for its "Timeline of Computing History," an ambitious interactive exhibit that seeks to chronicle the history of computing and its impact on the human experience.
Toole said the museum will name the gallery where the timeline exhibit will be located after Bill Gates. The exhibit is expected to open in 2009.
Monica Harrington, senior policy officer of the Gates Foundation, said the organization supports the museum's mission.
"They are in a great position to collect the stories and artifacts that will help future generations understand the key role of computing during our lifetime," she said.
The museum began in Boston in 1979 under the name Digital Computer Museum. It moved to Silicon Valley in 1996. Its collection was first housed in a building on Moffett Field that was accessible only by appointment.
The museum moved to its current home in Mountain View in 2002 and became open to the public on a regular schedule in 2003.
The Computer History Museum now has a collection of about 60,000 artifacts, images and documents, said communications director Steven Brewster.
Run by a full-time staff of 30 and more than 300 volunteers, the museum received about 1,600 on-site visitors and 170,000 online visitors a month at www.computerhistory.org, Brewster said.
Among the items in the collection are the original Google server, a see-through Palm Pilot and a computer-generated "Mona Lisa."
The museum recently opened an exhibit on the history of computer chess and often holds lectures, seminars and workshops on the computer industry.