THERE are plenty of technological developments we probably could have foreseen 100 or so years ago, when the Wright brothers were making their first flights, I suggest to Jim Austin.

We might have been able to guess that we would soon conquer the skies; that one day we might even make it to the moon; that there would be huge advances in medicine; and transport; and building techniques.

But we would surely never have dreamed just how much computers would come to dominate our lives.

The professor of neural computing at the University of York begs to differ.

“Babbage (Charles Babbage, the British inventor credited with the idea for the first mechanical computers in the 1800s) would have thought otherwise,” he says briskly. And by the 1920s there was plenty of evidence for just how important electricity and electronics were going to be. “Radios were coming out, and there was an explosion of inventiveness, especially around what electricity could do.”

That puts me in my place. I try another tack. It sometimes seems a shame to me, I say, that we have invested so much energy and effort into developing ever newer and faster computers and information technologies that allow us to talk to each-other more quickly, and yet so little, for example, in exploring space.

“Computers are there to give something to people,” he says. “What has going to the stars done for us? Well, apart from Teflon?”

What computers do, he says, is extend the capacity of the human brain.

“We cannot add up quickly. We can’t remember things. Computers are fantastic at that.”

And, of course, through iPhones and email and text messaging and the internet, they allow us to stay in touch and bombard each-other, ceaselessly, with information.

But much of what we talk to each-other about online is rubbish, I say.

That is for social anthropologists, not him, to comment on, he insists. “But communication is fundamental. If people don’t communicate, it’s bad news.”

It is pretty clear, he says, that modern information technology meets a need. “We spend a lot of time emailing. If we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t use it.” And he’s absolutely right, of course.

Prof Austin is clearly a man in love with the magic of computers – and he has been ever since his 1960s boyhood.

He’s dyslexic, and as a boy his mother encouraged him to channel his inquiring mind into things that didn’t involve letters.

He discovered a love of electronics. As a seven or eight-year-old, he took a radio to pieces, laying the bits all over the floor.

“Needless to say, it never worked again! But I learned how a radio worked.” Next, he made his own electronic curtain-opening machine – which did work. “I used to open my own curtains with it.” He built a robot tank and, before long, he had even built his own computer. Then, as teenagers do, he decided he knew it all. With electronics sussed out, he pondered what to study at university – and opted for neurobiology, the science of the brain.

“I thought, what are the biggest challenges in the world?” he says. “I thought there were two: understanding the world in terms of physics, or understanding the brain.”

He did a BSc in neurobiology at Sussex University. But by the time he came to do his PhD, at Brunel, his interest in computers and electronics was rearing its head again.

He did the obvious thing by combining the two, to study neural networks – which basically involves trying to create “artificial intelligences”, or computer brains that work in a similar way to human ones. It’s the field he works in to this day.

But he also became a collector: a collector of old computers. The first one he was offered was the old mainframe computer at Sussex University. It was the late 1970s, he was still a student there, and he heard the computer was going to be scrapped.

He went to see the head of the university’s computing services and asked if he could have it. “He showed me around; it was this amazing machine that filled a massive room.”

He didn’t take it in the end as he had nowhere to store it, but he’s kicked himself ever since. The thing about big, powerful computers, he says, is that once they become obsolete, they are just scrapped. If nobody cares enough to preserve them, they will simply be lost.

His chance came not long after he moved to the University of York as a lecturer in computer science in 1986.

He and his wife, Jayne, managed to buy a run-down farmhouse outside York. It was in a sorry state – leaking roof, mould and mud everywhere – but what it did have was three huge pig sheds. They were in better condition than the house, he jokes – and they were perfect for storing old computers.

He started collecting with a vengeance – and now all three sheds are filled to bursting with computers and computer components of all shapes and sizes.

There are, he estimates, about 480 computers here, and literally thousands of components. His collection ranges from a single “module” from an early 1950s EDSAC vacuum tube computer – it’s like a work of art, he says, holding it up with delight; and indeed it is, each light bulb-like tube in effect a switch, a tiny component in an electronic “brain” – to the giant TAC computer that, between 1966 and 2004 ran a nuclear power station in Anglesey. He has one of the first-ever home computers – the one that Bill Gates cut his teeth writing the software for, he says – and the IBM 3084 that, up until the mid-1980s, kept Cambridge University running.

His most impressive piece, however – at least for sheer size – is a huge Fujitsu VPX 240 which, in the early 1990s, was about the 450th fastest computer in the world. He acquired it from the Manchester University supercomputing centre in the late 1990s. It is the size of several large wardrobes, and much of its innards are made up of cooling systems. “This is basically a fridge!” he says, opening one panel and peering inside at an array of pipes. “It’s water-cooled.”

Despite the VPX 240s huge size, however, an average modern PC is about five to ten times faster than this Goliath – an indication of just how quickly computer science is moving.

Another indication is the Amdahl core store from the 1970s. It is a rack of knitted copper wire stitched with tiny metal rings, each of them representing a single byte. The whole rack, which must be a meter tall, could store one megabyte of information.

A modern digital camera memory chip a fraction the size can store 500 or 1,000 times as much. That’s progress.

What is stored in these three huge barns, in fact, amounts to a history of the evolution of the modern computer.

Prof Austin comes alive as he takes me around – and it is clear that he loves nothing more than showing off his collection.

But out here, it is fairly inaccessible – which brings us to his dream.

What he would really like is to establish somewhere in York a computer museum. More than a museum, he says: a centre that celebrates technology and computing, both of the past, the present and the future.

The past would be his computer collection. The present would be a chance for businesses to show off what they are capable of now – everything from face recognition software to the tiny computers in the engines of F1 cars. And the future would be about the research that universities are doing – and the places that this research could lead.

He wants the centre to be a place that will inspire people about computers and about the possibilities they represent: the kind of place that children, students and businesspeople can all visit and go “wow”!

So where would it be? One possibility is the University of York. The university seems quite keen, he says – a claim the university confirms, saying it has been in talks with him, and that there is space set aside in the Sir Ron Cooke Hub building on the new campus for exhibitions.

Another possibility, however, might be in a building somewhere in York itself.

Prof Austin is confident of attracting some of the funding he needs through grant applications – it’s what he does, he says. But he will still need some input from investors to cover the start-up costs of the centre.

If it does come off, it will be between three and ten years yet before his dream becomes a reality, he estimates.

But it would certainly make for a unique addition to York’s visitor attractions. And who knows, it may just help inspire the next generation of young IT geniuses to do great things.

• For details about the idea of a computer museum for York, visit Prof Austin’s website.