Tags: computing

5

sparkline

100 words 054

In between publishing the Whole Earth Catalog and spinning up the Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand wrote an article in Rolling Stone magazine about one of the earliest video games, Spacewar.

Except it isn’t really about Spacewar at all. It’s about the oncoming age of the personal computer.

The article was published in 1972. At the end, there’s an appendix listing some communal places where “one can step in off the street and compute.” One of those places—with 16 terminals available—was run by a certain Bob Kahn.

Together with Vint Cerf he created the Internet’s Transmission Control Protocol.

100 words 053

When I got back from Bletchley Park yesterday, I immediately started huffduffing more stories about cryptography and code-breaking.

One of the stories I found was an episode of Ockham’s Razor featuring Professor Mark Dodgson. He talks about the organisational structure at Bletchley Park:

The important point was the organization emphasised team-working and open knowledge sharing where it was needed, and demarcation and specialisation where it was most appropriate.

This reminds of another extraordinary place, also displaying remarkable levels of collaboration, that has an unusual lack of traditional hierarchies and structure: CERN.

Bletchley Park produced the computer. CERN produced the web.

100 words 037

It started when Jessica relayed something that happened when she was on a cultural walking tour of Sofia two weekends ago. The tour guide asked “Does anyone know who invented the computer?”

Alan Turing? Charles Babbage?

The tour guided pointed to a statue and said, “John Atanasoff.”

I had never heard of him. So of course I looked him up. That led me down the most incredible rabbit hole as I uncovered a courtroom drama filled with invalidated patents and mountains of court records.

Why had I never heard about this? It was eclipsed by a bigger legal drama: Watergate.

Turing

One hundred years ago today, Alan Turing was born.

I could claim that without him, we wouldn’t have computers; that without him, World War Two would have lasted another two years at least.

But the truth is that the history of innovation and invention is rarely as linear as that, and that if one genius hadn’t made the great leap forward, some other genius would have. The pieces were there, waiting in the adjacent possible.

And yet, in our timeline, history played out the way it did. So I can say that thanks to Alan Turing, we have computers; thanks to Alan Turing, World War Two was shortened by at least two years.

And I can, with absolute certainty, say that the way Alan Turing was treated after the war was absolutely shameful.

We can learn a lot from the life of Alan Turing. We can learn about computation, universal machines, and artificial intelligence. We can also learn about tolerance, compassion …and love.

Colossal

Andy and his cohorts have been busy recovering an important televisual document of computer history: The Machine That Changed the World (originally titled The Dream Machine). The series comprises of five parts:

  1. Great Brains
  2. Inventing the Future
  3. The Paperback Computer
  4. The Thinking Machine
  5. The World at Your Fingertips

The first episode is particularly fascinating, tracing the history of the idea of a universal machine, starting with and his Analytical Engine. The documentary includes footage of Doron Swade, author of the excellent book The Cogwheel Brain (released in the States as The Difference Engine). The story then moves on to the turbulent time period of the 1930s and ’40s that saw the creation of the world’s first programmable computers — a period so evocatively described in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

The documentary shies away from declaring any one computer as “First!”, though plenty of time is devoted to . The is covered but the secrecy surrounding the project ensured that its place in computer history would be denied for decades. Churchill himself once quipped that he would personally shoot anyone who blabbed about the code-breaking at .

Today we understand the historical importance of Bletchley Park and yet the charity responsible for the upkeep of the centre has to go cap in hand to the Heritage Lottery Fund to ask for the money required for its upkeep. If you are a British citizen (or resident) and you consider the preservation of the site of the Colossus to be an important task, consider signing the petition to save Bletchley Park.