I’ve recently completed a detailed outline for my second book and am now in the process of writing the opening chapter. Having completed The Story of the Computer back in 2015, I’ve kept my authorial hand in by penning the occasional article for LinkedIn but haven’t written anything substantial so I’m really enjoying the discipline of writing every day again.
The subject of the new book is the history of automation and robotics. Unlike the history of the computer, this subject hasn’t been covered very widely by other authors. There are a handful of books available on the history of the robot but none of these include the development of automation technology and in my opinion it is impossible to separate the two. A robot is a specific example of automation technology, one which can perform a complex sequence of actions automatically without manual intervention. Robots which can operate with a high degree of autonomy, so-called autonomous robots, are arguably the highest form of automation technology. Therefore, in order to cover the history of the robot as comprehensively as possible, it is necessary to examine it within the wider context of automation.
I’ve been fortunate to work with robots and other forms of automation technology extensively during my career as an R&D engineer so I have a reasonable baseline knowledge from which to start. Nevertheless, a huge amount of research will be required in order to chart the evolution of this fascinating subject. Some of this has been completed already during the course of creating the outline of the book but there is still much to do.
Here’s a brief summary of the new book:-
It begins by tracing the origins of automation and robotics through the development of automata and mechanical toys. The mechanisation of the textiles industry and the advent of the factory system during the Industrial Revolution are then described. The story continues with the development of automatic control technologies before moving on to factory automation and industrial robots. The book then focuses on the evolution of anthropomorphic robots before bringing the subject up to date with the development of UAVs, AGVs and Self-Driving Cars. The final chapter examines the application of digital technologies to manufacturing in what is now being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
I’ll keep you posted on progress.
I’ve had a few articles published on LinkedIn recently which may be of interest, as they reference various aspects of the history of computers. Here are the links:-
I was saddened to hear this week that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen had died, aged 65, from complications due to the lymphoma which he had been battling since first being diagnosed with the disease in the early 1980s. I researched his life extensively for my book and felt that I got to know him a little, even though I’d never met him. Although he was not as well known as his friend and business partner Bill Gates, his contribution to the birth and early success of Microsoft was equally important, with Allen often taking the lead in the technology developments and business decisions that would propel Microsoft from start-up to giant corporation in under 15 years.
Like Gates, Allen was also a dedicated philanthropist and it will be a fitting memorial to see his enormous wealth being put to many good causes in the coming years.
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 “