Big Dimwits and Little Geniuses

Big dimwits and little geniuses, Time Magazine, January 3, 1983.

Yesterday’s klutzy machines have become today’s micromarvels

The first electronic digital computer in the US., unveiled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, was a collection of 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70, 000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and 6,000 switches, and occupied the space of a two-car garage. Yet ENIAC ( for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) was, in retrospect, a dimwit. When it worked, it did so only for short bursts because its tubes kept burning out. Built to calculate artillery firing tables, the half-million dollar ENIAC could perform 5,000 additions or subtractions per second. Today almost any home computer, costing only a few hundred dollars, can outperform poor old ENIAC as a ‘number cruncher’.

Computer designers have obviously come a long way.But behind their spectacular achievements is a colourful history, involving so many characters, so many innovations and such wrenching efforts that no single person or even country can claim authorship of the computer.

In a sense, humans have been computing-manipulating and comparing numbers or anything that they may represent- since they first learned how to count, probably with pebbles (the word calculus stems from the Latin for stone).At least 2,500 years ago, the Chinese, among others, discovered that they could handle numbers more easily by sliding little beads on strings. Their invention, the abacus, is still in use.

In 1642, perhaps pained by the long hours his tax-collector father spent doing sums, a 19 year-old French prodigy named Blaise Pascal made an automatic device that could add or subtract with the turning of little wheels. But the clerks who spent their lives doing calculations in those days viewed Pascal’s gadget as a job threat, and it never caught on. A short time later, the German mathematician Gottfried Wilhem Leibniz added the power of multiplication and division. Said he : « It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculations… »

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But such mechanical contrivances were no more than calculators. They could only do arithmetic, and very clumsily at that. The first man to conceptualize a true computer, one that would be able to do math and much more, was an irascible 19th century English mathematician, named Charles Babbage. Incensed by the inaccuracies he found in the mathematical tables of his time, the ingenious Babbage (father of the speedometer, the cow-catcher for locomotives and the first reliable life-expectancy tables) turned his fertile brain to creating an automaton that could rapidly calculate long lists of functions like logarithms. The result was an intricate system of gears and cogs called the Difference Engine.

Babbage managed to build only a simple model because the craftsmen of the day were unable to machine the precise parts required by the contraption. But the temperamental genius soon had a bolder concept. He called it the Analytical Engine. Even more complex than its predecessor, it had all the essentials of a modern computer : a logic center, or what Babbage called ‘the mill’, which manipulated data according to certain rules ; a memory or ‘store’, for holding information ; a control unit for carrying out instructions ; and the means for getting data into and out of the machine. Most important of all, its operating procedures could be changed at will : the Analytical Engine was programmable.

Babbage worked obsessively on his machine for nearly 40 years. Presumably he was the first world’s computer ‘nerd’. Until his death in 1871, he ground out more and more sketches. The Analytical Engine became hopelessly complicated. It required thousands of individual wheels, levers, and belts, all working together in exquisite precision. Few people understood what he was doing, with the notable exception of Lord Byron’s beautiful and mathematically gifted daughter, Ada the Countess of Lovelace, who became Babbage’s confidante and public advocate. When the government cut off funds for the Analytical Engine, she and Babbage tried devising a betting system for recouping the money at the track. They lost thousands of pounds.

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The Analytical Engine was never built. It would have been as big as a football field and probably needed half a dozen steam locomotives to power it. But one of its key ideas was soon adapted. To feed the machine its instructions, Babbage planned to rely on punched cards, like those used to control color and designs in the looms developed by the French weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard. Ada poetically described the scheme this way : « The Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves. »

In the US., a young engineer named Herman Hollerith persuaded the Census Bureau to try the punched-card idea during the forthcoming 1890 census. Such personal information as age,sex, marital status, and race was encoded on cards, which were read by electric sensors, and tabulated. Hollerith’s equipment worked so well that the Census Bureau’s clerks occasionally shut it off to protect their sinecures. Soon punched cards were widely used in office machinery, including, that made by a small New York firm that absorbed Hollerith’s company and became International Business Machines.

Babbage’s dream of a true computer- one that could solve any number of problems- was not realized until the 1930s. In Hitler’s Germany, an obscure young engineer named Konrad Zuse, using the German equivalent of an Erector set for parts and his parents’ living room as his workshop, built a simple computer that could perform a variety of tasks ; its descendants calculated wing designs for the German aircraft industry during World War II. At Bell Telephone Laboratories in the US., the research arm of AT&T, a mathematician named George Stibitz built a similar device in 1939 and even showed how it could do calculations over telephone wires. This was the first display of remote data processing. During the war a British group, putting into practice some of the ideas of their brilliant countryman Alan Turing, built a computer called Colossus I that helped break German military codes. The British, German and US machines all shared a common characteristic : they were the first computers to use the binary system of numbers, the standard internal language of today’s digital computers.

In this they departed from Babbage’s « engine ». The engine was designed to count by the tens, or the decimal system. Employing ten digits (0 to 9), the decimal system probably dates from the time when humans realized they had ten fingers and ten toes. (Digit comes from the Latin for finger or toe). But there are other ways of counting as well, by twelves, say, as in the hours of the day or months of the year ( the duodecimal system). In the binary system, only two digits are used, 0 and 1. To create a 2, you simply move a column to the left, just as you create a 10 in the decimal system. Thus if 0 is represented by 0, and one by 1, then two is 10, three 11, four 100, five 101, six 110, seven 111, eight 1000, and so forth.