Electronic Brains

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You would think that what with computers being such a ubiquitous part of our technology that they'd loom large in the tales of Future Past, but they are actually largely notable by their absence.  Part of the problem was that until you get your hands on one, computers are very difficult machines to understand.  This was true not only of popular science writers, but even of computer scientists who spent their working hours designing the IBMs and Univacs of the day, but rarely had much opportunity to play around with them and get a feel for what sort of a machine it was. 

In the popular, and often the professional mind, a computer was a large machine that did all sorts of impressive things.  Okay, like what?  Well, it did arithmetic.  And it could remember all sorts of facts like payroll records and such.  Anything else?  Well, yeah.  Such as?  Well, it... It can... or maybe it... Oh, I don't know.  But it's probably very impressive.

Because the concept that computers were simply machines that processed data hadn't sunk in, there developed a weird double image of them.  On the one hand, few people could grasp that computers could do more than crunch numbers because that is what they were used for mainly.  The idea that any information could be reduced to numbers and manipulated accordingly took decades to be fully appreciated.  In the meantime, people were aware that computers were powerful machines (from their size, they had to be!) and were capable of all sorts of things.  After all, they could predict who would win elections, guide rockets into space, and send you a phone bill.  Surely they did this because they were "smart."  Thus was born the popular myth of the Thinking Machine; the Electronic Brain that could answer all questions like an oracle and whose circuits were filled with mild contempt for the puny-brained creatures that had built it. 

That such machines were conscious and capable of reasoning wasn't just a future possibility, it was thought by many to be established fact.  I remember back in the '70s I was at an exhibit that showcased a computer terminal.   The terminal was disconnected from its mainframe at the time and there was a visitor typing into the keyboard.  Whatever he entered, the monitor would flash "Illegal Command."  After a while, the man started asking the terminal "What is an illegal command?" and all sorts of other things in a vain attempt to reason with the machine into doing something! 

Oddly, computers were already around for quite some time.  In 1833, Charles Babbage began work on what is arguably the first true computer: the Analytical Engine.  This wasn't a machine of silicon and plastic operating off electricity, but a mechanical computer that used gearing to calculate its answers.  Babbage tried for years to complete his engine, but was unsuccessful because the materials and machine cutting technologies of his day were too imprecise, but the principles upon which the engine was based are exactly those used in our most modern computers

You can see the Analytical Engine and its printer unit, recently completed from Babbage's plans, at the Science Museum in London.  It's a huge bruiser of steel and brass weighing tons and as impressive a paperweight as man ever devised.  But you can't help looking at it and be a bit disconcerted when you realise that there isn't one whit of electrics about the thing and yet all its gears and cam shafts do basically the same job as our PCs.

I often wonder if our computer revolution is one of true invention or just a playing out of a technology where the big hurtles were cleared nearly two centuries ago. 

Babbage's engine wasn't just a strange anachronism of the Victorian Age.  The mechanical computer had a long and distinguished career well into the 1950s.  Machines such as the Differential Analyzer would routinely handle the most complex of calculations.  The only drawback was that you literally had to take the machine apart and put it back together again to get it to work on a new problem, but it looked impressive.-- so much so that in the George Pal movie When Worlds Collide (1951) there was a sequence showing the DA calculating the orbit of the planet that would crash into the Earth. 

It's so much easier to sell a bizarre idea when a honking big machine is around to crank out the answer.  It just isn't the same when it comes from a 50p calculator out of box of corn flakes, even though it has a hundred times the number crunching ability. 


Here is a perfect picture of what the computer of the future was supposed to look like or, at least, what it was supposed to be a recognisable descendant of;  the 1948 IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator. 

Actually, you're only seeing one part of it.  The whole thing covered half a football field in area. It had 21,400 relays, 12,000 valves, and spools of paper tape so large they looked like something out of a newsprint shop.   This isn't computer design, it's building architecture.  I mean literally.  I can't tell where the computer leaves off and the building begins.  But this was the vision of what computers would look like.  They would be larger and larger machines as they grew more powerful; attended by engineers like priests of the electronic god as it sat ruminating in its air-conditioned temple.   Meanwhile, the air would be filled with the clicking of relays and the soft susurrations of tape drives serving as Gregorian chants of the New Age. 

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