The British Broadcasting Corporation recently announced that it is making its archive of material from the Computer Literacy Project available online for the first time. The BBC Computer Literacy Project was a pioneering educational initiative which ran from 1980 to 1989 and included literally hundreds of television programmes on how to use and program microcomputers plus a wealth of supporting material such as computer programs which viewers could try out for themselves.
The Project also spawned its own microcomputer, the BBC Micro, which became a very popular model in the UK home computer market, selling more than 1.5 million units over a 13 year period. BBC Micros were a common sight in UK schools and colleges, where they were responsible for nurturing a generation of games programmers. I even had one on my kitchen table for a while, one of a batch of unwanted machines from the R&D laboratory where I worked, which had replaced them with more capable models such as the Commodore PET, Apple ][ and IBM PC.The huge success of the BBC Micro in the UK did not extend beyond its home market and the machine is almost unheard of in other parts of the world. However, the company behind it, Acorn Computers, later evolved into Arm Holdings, the firm responsible for the design of most of the CPU chips used in today’s smartphones. So, the powerful mobile computing and telecommunications device that you probably have in your pocket right now owes at least part of its existence to an obscure, low-cost microcomputer from the 1980s. A mighty Micro indeed!
On a short trip to Athens in January this year, I was able to spend a couple of hours in the city’s National Archaeological Museum. One of the highlights of the collection is the Antikythera Mechanism, a mysterious object which was found by sponge divers in the wreckage of an ancient Roman ship off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900. It is the earliest known example of a geared mechanism, having been dated to around 150-100 BC, and its discovery changed our perception of mechanical technology in the ancient world.
The Antikythera Mechanism is described in Chapter 1 of my book in a section on the evolution of geared mechanisms, one of the ‘building blocks’ that facilitated the development of calculating machines. I researched the Mechanism extensively during the writing of the book but had never had the opportunity to study it in person before.
The curators have done a superb job of exhibiting the Antikythera Mechanism, a difficult task due to the calcified condition of the remaining fragments. The extensive display includes both physical and computer-based reconstructions of the Mechanism plus explanatory material from the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. Below are a couple of photographs I took of the exhibit during my visit. The left hand photo shows the three main fragments from the front. The right hand photo is a close-up of the largest fragment from the rear.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting two museums whose collections include computers and computer-related exhibits. The first, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, has recently reopened its Science & Technology galleries following a £14.1 million redevelopment programme. The suite of six new galleries are considered to be the UK’s most comprehensive outside London and feature objects covering over 250 years of enquiry and innovation. Computers on display include a Commodore PET 2001 (pictured below), one of the ‘1977 Trinity’ of early microcomputers and the first desktop computer I ever used.
The collection also includes a rare example of an Apple-1. The Apple-1 model was originally sold without a case so the owner of this particular example built it into a leather briefcase in order to provide a suitable protective housing for the computer, echoing subsequent developments in portable computing. Also featured are several early portable computers including a GRiD Compass, the first computer to feature the now familiar ‘clamshell’ design.
A few weeks after my visit to Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to visit London’s Design Museum. Billed as “the world’s leading museum devoted to contemporary design in every form“, the Design Museum has recently relocated to a stunning new building in Kensington High Street. However, despite having a huge amount of display space available, the permanent collection is disappointingly small. Computers are reasonably well represented but the labelling of items is rather confusing and I did notice what appeared to be a mislabeled Friden EC-132 Electronic Calculator. Although I am Scottish, I don’t think I’m being biased by stating that I preferred the displays in Edinburgh to those in London.
I watched an excellent documentary on BBC Four television recently about Ada Lovelace (or Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace to give her her proper name). The title of the documentary was Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing. Presented by mathematician Dr Hannah Fry of University College London, it chronicled Ada’s involvement with mechanical computing pioneer Charles Babbage, and the role she played in promoting Babbage’s Analytical Engine design through her now famous ‘Notes’ of 1843.
By treading a fine line between journalistic hyperbole and factual accuracy, aided and abetted by the subject’s fascinating background and turbulent life story, the documentary explained the historical significance of Ada Lovelace’s Notes in a way that appealed to both the casual viewer and those with a keen interest in the history of technology. It was also good to see some of Babbage’s hardware in action and to hear interviews with some genuine experts in the mechanical computing field, such as Doron Swade, who masterminded the construction of the full-scale replica of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2.
Despite bowing to convention and acknowledging Ada Lovelace’s contribution in Chapter 1 of my book, I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of Ada’s authorship of the Notes, suspecting that Babbage was the true originator of many of the ideas presented in them. However, this documentary has helped to set my mind at ease, as it was clear from the interviews with the experts that they all agree that she was indeed the originator of these ideas. As Swade himself explains in the programme;
“This is not a suggestive hint. This is not a backwards projection. This is Lovelace thumping the table saying this is what is significant about this machine “
I gave a presentation last night at my local British Computer Society branch meeting. The subject chosen was the origins and development of computer graphics. I chose this particular subject as graphics is one of the key component technologies in modern computers but seems to have been neglected by historians despite this importance. It also happens to be a very interesting chapter in the history of the computer and very unusual in that all the earliest developments have a single source, Project Whirlwind at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A PDF file containing my PowerPoint slides for the presentation can be downloaded by clicking on the Download button below.
I read with interest the recent news reports of the death of Ralph H Baer, the German-born electronics engineer who is credited with inventing the first video game console in 1966. Baer, who died aged 92 on 6 December, pioneered the concept of a unit which would allow two people to play a selection of simple interactive video games using a domestic television set as the display device. He and two colleagues developed a prototype unit which incorporated two controllers, each with two input dials and a pushbutton, and a bank of switches for selecting which game to play from a choice of 12. This was subsequently licensed to US consumer electronics firm Magnavox and introduced as the Magnavox Odyssey in August 1972.
The success of the Odyssey prompted other companies such as Atari to introduce similar products and by 1976 the video game console market was worth over $240 million per year in the US alone. The market has continued to grow at an astounding rate and is now worth an estimated $49 billion per year in worldwide sales. Ralph Baer’s invention was the first successful hardware implementation of an interactive video game and his contribution to the birth of an industry was recognised by his adopted country in 2004 when he was awarded the US National Medal of Technology.
Of course, you no longer have to buy a dedicated game console in order to play interactive video games. Most popular console games are also available as software versions which can be installed and run on a standard personal computer (providing that it meets the minimum hardware specification required by the game itself). In conducting the research for my book, I was amazed to discover that the earliest known example of such a game predates the early video game consoles of the 1970s by more than 20 years. It was a bouncing ball simulation written in 1950 for the MIT Whirlwind computer by Charles W Adams and John T Gilmore, two of the eight programmers on the Whirlwind development team. Adams and Gilmore created a program that employed three differential equations to calculate the trajectory of a bouncing ball and display it on the computer’s oscilloscope screen. By adjusting the bounce frequency using a control knob, the ball could be made to pass through a gap as if it had gone down a hole in the floor.
This was not the only notable achievement of the MIT Whirlwind project. The machine itself is one of the most significant of the first generation of stored-program computers. It provided a platform for MIT’s contribution to the development of magnetic core memory, a revolutionary type of memory technology which transformed the speed and reliability of early electronic computers. More importantly, it is also the source of virtually all of the earliest developments in computer graphics and its design was later adopted by the US Air Force for the largest computer system ever built, the Project SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defence system.
Following my earlier post on the legacy of computer pioneer Alan M Turing (Turing’s Legacy), Turing’s achievements have again hit the headlines with the news last week that members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) have voted the Bombe at Bletchley Park as their favourite Engineering Heritage Award winner from the past 30 years.
The Bombe was an electromechanical code-breaking device which emulated the rotors of an Enigma machine, the typewriter-like device used by the German military to encrypt radio messages during World War II. It employed a motorised mechanism to step rapidly through every possible combination of rotor settings and apply a logical test to each one to determine if it met the conditions for a possible solution which had been wired into the machine before operation. The Bombe was closely based on an earlier device developed by the Polish Cipher Bureau in 1938. Alan Turing improved the Polish design by incorporating 36 sets of rotors to allow multiple checks to be made in parallel. Turing’s design was then turned into a fully-engineered device by the British Tabulating Machine Company under the direction of chief engineer Harold H Keen.
I must confess to being somewhat surprised by the result of the IMechE vote, as the Bombe was a workmanlike device which employed a brute force approach to cryptanalysis and lacks the sophistication and ingenuity of later developments at Bletchley Park (although these later developments employed electronic technology which probably renders them ineligible). It also ranks low in terms of Alan Turing’s achievements, as the concept was not entirely his.
There have been 100 winners of the Engineering Heritage Award to date, so the IMechE members had many other remarkable examples of engineering excellence to choose from, including the world’s first supersonic airliner, Concorde, which came second in the vote. The fact that they chose something designed by Alan Turing may be due in part to the high level of media attention he is receiving at the moment. This attention is likely to increase further with the release next month of the Hollywood film The Imitation Game, a dramatised account of Turing’s cryptanalysis work at Bletchley Park during World War II. Let’s hope the filmmakers have done their research and that Turing’s achievements are portrayed accurately. I certainly plan to go see it and will report back in a future post.