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IBM’s Game Changer

I was pleasantly surprised to see the BBC and several technology web sites pick up on this week’s 50th anniversary of the introduction of IBM’s System/360 family of medium and large scale computers.  The System/360 doesn’t often receive the attention it deserves but it really was a game changer for the industry, as it was the first range of computers to address the issue of software compatibility between different classes of machine, allowing code developed for one System/360 model to run on any other model in the family.  This was achieved through a technique known as microprogramming which was conceived by British computer scientist Maurice Wilkes at Cambridge University in 1951.

IBM System/360Before System/360, organisations looking to upgrade their computer system would have to rewrite their software to run on the new hardware, unless there happened to be an emulator available for the new model which could automatically translate and run code written for the old machine.  However, emulators were difficult to come by in the 1960s and many organisations remained locked in to ageing or inadequate systems as they could not afford the time or investment required to rewrite their software.  System/360 changed all this by allowing organisations whose needs had outgrown a particular class of machine to migrate to a larger model without having to worry about software compatibility.

The development of the System/360 range was one of the largest projects ever undertaken by IBM (or any computer company for that matter).  Development costs were estimated at a whopping $5 billion, equivalent to over $37 billion today.  The development of the operating system was so problematic that it inspired the manager responsible, Fred Brooks, to write his seminal book on software project management, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays in Software Engineering, which was first published in 1975.  Also, as the new family would replace IBM’s entire data processor product range and its development would necessitate a halt to all existing product development projects, including mid-life upgrades to existing models, it put the company in a highly vulnerable position until the new line came on stream.  One IBM executive summed it up perfectly by telling Fortune magazine, “We call this project ‘you bet your company’”.

Fortunately for IBM, the System/360 range was a huge success and the System/360 architecture would form the basis of the company’s data processor products for the next two decades.  In the 1960s where IBM led, the rest of the computer industry followed and other firms soon began offering their own families of compatible machines.  Some of these companies, such as RCA and Sperry Rand, went even further by also making their machines software compatible with System/360.

The impact of System/360 on the computer industry was immense, rivaled only by the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh in the 1980s.  It’s good to see this finally reflected in the media attention System/360 is now receiving as a result of its 50th anniversary.

Only One More to Go

I’ve finally completed Chapter 12 of my book (Bringing It All Together – The Graphics Workstation), which leaves only one more chapter left to write.   As the title suggests, Chapter 12 covers the development of the graphics workstation from the earliest efforts to create a high performance personal computer system for scientific and technical applications at MIT in the 1960s to the establishment of a commercial market for graphics workstations by companies such as Apollo Computer and Sun Microsystems in the early 1980s, and the subsequent adoption of workstation technology by Apple for the Macintosh.  It also includes Networking, an important building block which led to the creation of the global system of interconnected computers that we now call the Internet.

Apple MacintoshWeighing in at nearly 25,000 words, Chapter 12 is the longest chapter in the book and writing it took me 5 months longer than I’d originally estimated.  The main reason for this was the dearth of source material on this subject.  Unlike other areas of computer history, the development of the graphics workstation is not well documented so I had to conduct more research for this chapter than with previous chapters.  I also wanted to describe the contribution of Xerox PARC in some detail, as this was where so much of the graphical user interface technology we now take for granted originated.

The final chapter of the book will cover the development of Microsoft Windows and the emergence of the so-called ‘Wintel’ platform as the dominant platform for personal computing from the mid 1990s onwards.  Given the copious amounts of source material available on this topic, the research required should take less time than for Chapter 12 so I’ve set myself an ambitious target date for completion of 31 July this year.  I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Turing’s Legacy

It was good to hear the recent news that computer pioneer Alan M Turing has been granted a posthumous royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for gross indecency (as a result of a homosexual act, which at that time was illegal in the UK).  His punishment, for which he chose chemical castration rather than a prison sentence, and subsequent loss of security clearance for his cryptanalysis work are thought to have led to his untimely death by suicide two years later in 1954.  However, Turing’s pardon has also caused considerable controversy, as the thousands of other men who were convicted of homosexual acts during the same period are unlikely to receive the same treatment.  It seems that Turing has been singled out for a pardon as a result of his status as a national hero rather than for the degree of injustice that he suffered.

Alan TuringAlan Turing is one of the few British computer pioneers who is a household name.  This is well-deserved and an accurate reflection of the magnitude of his achievements.  However, many of the comments made in the media in the wake of the royal pardon announcement credit Turing with having a much greater influence on the development of the computer than is perhaps deserved.  Turing’s greatest achievements were in the field of mathematical logic and relate to the theory of computation rather than the practical development of computers.  His philosophy on the design of computers was to keep the hardware as simple as possible and rely on clever programming instead.  Consequently, his only computer design, for the NPL ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), made very little impact.

Alan Turing’s influence on the development of the computer is discussed in an excellent article by Professor Simon Lavington written last year as part of the celebration to mark the centenary of Turing’s birth.  The article, which is entitled Alan Turing: Is he really the father of computing?, questions how influential Turing’s pioneering work on early computers proved to be in their later development.  Lavington sums this up as follows:-

… his codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, and indeed Turing’s Ace design, exerted little influence on commercially viable computers as markets began to open up in the late 1950s.  Nevertheless, Alan Turing’s ideas remain to this day embedded in the theories of both codebreaking and computing.

Like Charles Babbage a century earlier, Alan Turing’s achievements went largely unrecognised during his lifetime and can only be fully appreciated when put into the context of later developments.  However, we must be careful not to place credit where it is not due.  Turing didn’t invent the modern computer anymore than Babbage did but his work did provide a solid theoretical foundation for later developments and for this he deserves to be honoured.

Are References Necessary in Non-Fiction Books?

A few people have asked me if I intend to include references in my book.  References are common in non-fiction books and usually take the form of a superscript number at the end of a sentence which links to a numbered list at the foot of the page, end of the chapter or back of the book containing the references to the source material.

Personally, I find references of this kind very annoying when reading a book.  They are difficult to ignore but severely interrupt the flow of the text when followed.  I appreciate that they are necessary for academic publications, but are they really necessary for books aimed at a more general readership?  Few non-academic readers will want to check out a reference and those who do can easily look it up on the Web.  References shouldn’t be required in order to support the author’s credibility, as the publisher will have made sure that the author knows his or her subject thoroughly before agreeing to publish the book in the first place.

If you look at the sample chapters of my own book, you will see that I’ve taken a slightly different approach.  At the end of each chapter there is a section entitled Further Reading which lists a selection of the source material for that chapter plus any related publications which may be of interest.  Any readers who want to delve deeper into the subject can do so by obtaining copies of this material, much of which can be found on the Web.

Of course, a publisher may take a different view and insist that I include full references for every scrap of source material used in the book.  I hope this won’t be the case but I guess it would be a small price to pay for the privilege of having my book published!

The Apple Falls

The downward trend in prices paid for working examples of the rare Apple-1 microcomputer continued last week when the latest example to be sold at auction went for only $330,000, a fall of over $57,000 from the previous Apple-1 sold by Christie’s in July and less than half the record price of $671,400 paid for a similar example in May.  The reason for this isn’t clear, as the computer was in excellent condition and included the original box plus monitor, software and peripherals.  It may be that the Apple-1 is no longer seen as quite so rare, as this was the fifth to come up for auction in only 18 months.

The auction, which was held by Auction Team Breker in Cologne, Germany, also featured an Arithmometer manufactured by Thomas de Colmar in Paris in the 19th century.  This rare example of the first mass-produced mechanical calculating machine sold for $313,000, a new world record price for an Arithmometer.  The date of manufacture was given by the auction house as 1835 but this is almost certainly incorrect, as Thomas did not finalise the design of his machine until 1848 and the presence of a serial number (No. 541) on the front panel suggests that it was one of a later batch of machines manufactured between 1867 and 1870.

Thomas de Colmar's Arithmometer

I’m a huge fan of early Apple computers, having used an Apple II and an Apple Macintosh extensively in the 1980s.  However, I always felt that they were overvalued by collectors in comparison to genuine antiques such as the Arithmometer, which are much older and in most cases rarer than early microcomputers, so it’s heartening to see signs that this disparity in prices may be coming to an end.

Computing Heroes

It was good to see Ada Lovelace Day attracting a large amount of press coverage this year.  The international day of celebration, which was held on 15 October, has been running for only 4 years and aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.  This year’s Nobel Prize also attracted similarly high levels of press attention, particularly here in the UK as a result of the Physics prize having been awarded to Professor Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a Nobel Prize in Engineering.  The closest we have to it is probably the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering which was awarded for the first time in June.  The inaugural prize was jointly awarded to Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf and Louis Pouzin for their contributions to the protocols that make up the fundamental architecture of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, for inventing the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreessen, who wrote the Mosaic web browser.  All five richly deserve their award, as the Internet and World Wide Web have in the words of the judges “initiated a communications revolution which has changed the world“.

Ada LovelaceAda Lovelace is also worthy of honour.  Known as the Enchantress of Numbers, she was the person who contributed most to our understanding of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine through her notes of 1843.  Her contribution may have had less of an impact than that of the five people mentioned above but she is an excellent role model and there is little doubt that she would have played a pivotal role in putting the machine to work had Babbage actually succeeded in constructing the Analytical Engine.

J Presper EckertThis got me thinking about who I would pick as my own hero amongst the many hundreds of contributors to the development of the computer featured in my book.  In terms of engineering, it would have to be the American electrical engineer J Presper Eckert.  Eckert’s name is associated with several of the most significant innovations in the early years of electronic computation, including the mercury delay line, magnetic drums and disks, the electrostatic storage tube, magnetic core storage and the stored-program concept.  He and Moore School of Electrical Engineering colleague John W Mauchly were also responsible for the development of the first general-purpose electronic digital calculator, ENIAC, and the UNIVAC I, which was the most influential of the early large-scale computers to reach the market.

Presper Eckert was not only a highly successful engineer.  He also co-founded the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, one of the earliest computer companies which was later absorbed into Remington Rand.  Eckert died in 1995 as a result of complications from leukemia.  Though not exactly an unsung hero, most of the awards he received during his lifetime were shared with John Mauchly and it is high time that he was recognised in his own right as one of the greatest engineers of all time.

Another Bite of the Apple

I learned recently of another Apple-1 which came up for sale at an online auction held by the respected international auction house Christie’s in July.  The winning bid of $387,750 was over 40% lower than the price paid for the previous example sold in May.  The reason for this isn’t clear, as it was in similar working condition and is also believed to be one of the first batch of 50 Apple-1 machines supplied to the Byte Shop in April 1976 for $500 apiece.

Apple-1 Computer Auctioned by Christie's

The seller, a retired school psychologist, had acquired the machine from the original owner in 1979 or 1980.  Remarkably, he paid nothing for it, as it was part of a swap of computer equipment.  He used the machine as a teaching aid for children with special needs for a few years before relegating it to a cardboard box at his home in California.

The auction, which was entitled First Bytes: Iconic Technology from the Twentieth Century, also featured a rare Apple Lisa and three Apple pre-production prototypes.  Surprisingly, several items failed to reach their reserve price and were not sold.  It will be interesting to see if this downward trend continues when the German auction house which achieved a world record price for the Apple-1 sold in May holds its next specialist auction on 16 November.  The star of the show will be yet another example of a working Apple-1 computer from the first batch of 50, this time complete with its original box.  However, in what may be a tell-tale sign of lower expectations, the estimated price for this item has been set at $300,000 to $500,000.

The Self-Publishing Dilemma

Progress on my book has been slow but steady over the past few months with the result that Chapter 12 is now nearing completion.  That leaves only one more chapter remaining plus some tidying up to be done as a result of writing several chapters out of sequence, so I’ve been thinking recently about what to do with the book once it is finished.  The feedback I’ve received on the sample chapters suggests that there is a market for such a book, but what would be the best way of reaching this market?

There appear to be three options available.  These are (in descending order of difficulty):-

  1. Securing a publishing deal with a book publisher.
  2. Self-publishing the book.
  3. Putting the entire book up on the Web as a free download.

With the first two options, there is also a decision to be made on whether to go for a traditional printed book or an eBook, or possibly both.  A book on a technology-related subject may be more attractive as an eBook given that people who are interested in reading about technology are also likely to be keen users of technology.  However, I’d like to include plenty of illustrations in my book and there are currently issues with the use of illustrations in eBooks due to the way in which eBook readers dynamically reformat the pages in order to accommodate different display screen resolutions.

Given my chances of landing a publishing deal with no track record whatsoever, I’m tempted to go down the self-publishing route.  However, to do this properly will involve considerable time and expense, with little prospect of a return on this investment as my book is likely to be lost amongst the competition unless I can find a way of getting it noticed.  Unfortunately, the level of competition is formidable, with more than 2 million eBooks currently available in the Amazon Kindle store alone.

The Web is awash with sites offering advice for unpublished authors, but most of these focus on fiction rather than non-fiction and the two categories are sufficiently different that much of the advice does not apply.  Therefore, if there are any non-fiction authors out there who would be willing to share their publishing experiences, good or bad, I would be keen to hear from you.

Of course, I don’t need to make a decision on this anytime soon.  With a busy day job and other commitments, it’s likely to take me some time to complete the book.  The later chapters have taken longer to write due to the larger amounts of primary source material to digest, so on this basis I probably have another 9 months or so before I’ll actually have something worth publishing.

A Fine Collection

I’ve recently returned from a short holiday in London where I was able to spend a couple of hours at the Science Museum in South Kensington.  This was my third visit to the Museum but the previous two visits were hurried attempts to cover the entire Museum as quickly as possible so this was my first opportunity to take my time and concentrate on examining the Museum’s fine collection of computer-related exhibits in the Computing Gallery.

The highlight of the collection is probably the full-scale replica of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 which contains over 8,000 components and weighs 5 tonnes.  Seeing this mechanical marvel up close really brings home the astonishing achievements made by Babbage more than a century before the birth of the computer industry.  Other Babbage items on display include the trial model and some of the engineering drawings for the Analytical Engine, Babbage’s general-purpose programmable calculating machine which was never built.  These provide a poignant reminder of a lost opportunity and food for thought on how much more advanced computer technology would have been had Babbage succeeded in completing this incredible machine.

Jesse Ramsden's Circular Dividing EngineI was pleasantly surprised to see one of Jesse Ramsden’s circular dividing engines on display.  Ramsden’s work on scientific instruments and machine tools in the 1770s led to major advances in precision engineering.  These advances not only allowed Babbage to create the intricate mechanisms for his Engines but they also provided the foundation for the successful mass production of mechanical calculating machines in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Museum’s collection does an excellent job of covering the mechanical and electromechanical eras and it was reassuring to see analogue computing well represented.  The electronic age is less well represented, however, with only a handful of medium and large scale electronic computers on display.  I’m aware that the Museum has many more items in storage than it can possibly display in the space available but it would be good to see a few more examples of electronic computers from recent times.

Unlike many of London’s tourist attractions, entry to the Science Museum is free.  Despite visiting at the height of the tourist season, there were no long queues at the doors, possibly as a result of stiff competition from the Natural History Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum which are both located in the same area.  If you are ever in South Kensington and have an hour or two to spare, I would highly recommend a visit.  If not, you could try reading Chapter 1 of my book which covers the work of Jesse Ramsden and Charles Babbage.

Apple-1 Revisited

As predicted in my earlier post on the auction of vintage computers which was due to take place in Germany on 25 May (Yesterday’s Computers – Tomorrow’s Antiques?), the Apple-1 microcomputer did indeed fetch the highest price.  It sold for a whopping $671,400, beating the previous record by over $30,000.  The buyer was a wealthy entrepreneur from the Far East who wishes to remain anonymous.

To make this story even more remarkable, the New York Times has since reported that the machine was sold by its original owner earlier this year for only $40,000.  The unnamed buyer replaced some of the circuit board components to bring it back into working condition, got it signed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (who also designed the Apple-1) and put it up for auction, making a huge profit in the process.

In contrast to the Apple-1, the Scelbi-8H microcomputer sold for only $20,780 despite its greater historical importance and rarity, with only 3 examples thought to exist.  The iconic MITS Altair 8800 sold for even less at $11,190, perhaps due to the larger numbers of these machines that are known to be in circulation.

As for the beautiful Pascaline mechanical calculating machine, some careful detective work in the weeks leading up to the auction revealed that it was a replica dating from the early 20th century rather than a 17th century original manufactured by Blaise Pascal himself.  Suspicion was raised when experts noticed that the handwritten label on the inside of the lid dating the machine to May 1652 looked identical to the label on an authenticated Pascaline in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris.  Further investigation showed that it had been assembled using screws with standardised metric threads rather than the handmade screws employed in Pascal’s era, confirming the machine’s 20th century origins.  The auction catalogue was amended accordingly and the machine fetched $41,562 on the day, a very respectable price for a modern replica.

PascalineWhat I didn’t realise when I wrote my earlier post was that the auction also featured an Alpina Universal Calculator identical to the one I own, suggesting that 20th century mechanical calculators are indeed worth collecting.  However, I’m unlikely to make a fortune from selling my Alpina as the reserve price was only $700!