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History in the Making

Earlier this week I attended a conference on the history of computing held at the Science Museum in London.  The conference was entitled Making the History of Computing Relevant and was organised by the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) in conjunction with the Science Museum and the Computer Conservation Society.

Conference1This was the first event of its kind to be held in the UK for several years and attracted participants from all over the country plus a large contingent of overseas visitors from as far afield as Australia, Japan and Hawaii.  The main theme of the conference was exploring what could be done to make the history of computing relevant and interesting to the general public.  The programme featured 28 presentations spread over 2 days.  These were structured into a number of sub-themes, each of which included a generous allocation of time for questions and discussion.

The presentations were uniformly excellent but the two stand out ones for me were ‘The Voice of the Machine’ by Dr Tom Lean and ‘Reconstruction of Konrad Zuse’s Z3’ by Dr Horst Zuse:-

  • Dr Lean’s presentation featured video and audio clips of interviews with some of the pioneers of computing in the UK which he has been gathering as part of the British Library’s ‘Voices of Science’ oral history project.  Listening to these fascinating clips gave the subject matter a more human dimension which should certainly help in making the history of computing more compelling to a non-technical audience.
  • Dr Zuse’s presentation was a hilarious account of his efforts to build a replica of the legendary Z3 electromechanical computer developed by his father in 1941.  It included clips from a video diary Dr Zuse had kept on the project, featuring such comic scenes as DHL couriers struggling to deliver heavy boxes containing thousands of electromagnetic relays to Dr Zuse’s top floor flat.  It was by far the funniest conference presentation I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

Conference2A reception was held in the Science Museum’s Alan Turing exhibition on the evening of Day 1.  This only added to the general air of conviviality and shared enthusiasm for the subject which permeated the whole event, although there was one moment of heated debate on Day 2 regarding whether museums should make more of an effort to give working demonstrations of their exhibits in situations where the equipment is still in working order.

I was also struck by the number of septuagenarian delegates sporting the latest smartphones, tablets and laptops and who were clearly much more skilled at using them than I am.  Proof perhaps of the adage “once a computer geek, always a computer geek“?

I am indebted to Google for sponsoring the conference, without which I probably could not have afforded to attend, as the delegate fees for conferences of this quality are usually several hundred pounds.  Thanks also to Dr Tilly Blyth (pictured above) and her team from the Science Museum for organising such an enjoyable and well run event.  Hopefully, the programme committee will decide to make this a regular event.  I’m already looking forward to attending the next one!

Yesterday’s Computers – Tomorrow’s Antiques?

I came across a news article the other day about an auction due to take place in Germany later this month (www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22510800).  A number of the items to be auctioned are computers or computer-related, including three early microcomputers (a Scelbi-8H from 1974, a MITS Altair 8800 from 1975 and an Apple-1 from 1976) and one of Blaise Pascal’s beautiful ‘Pascaline’ mechanical calculating machines from the 17th century.  All of these are very rare, especially the Pascaline, only 9 of which are known to have survived.  Though not quite as rare, with 30 to 50 examples thought to exist, the Apple-1 is highly prized and the last one to appear at auction sold for an eye-watering $640,000, which is an incredible return on the original purchase price of $667.

This set me thinking about computers as collectables.  Is there a market for vintage computers in the same way as for vintage cars or antique furniture?  And if there is, which computers would be the most collectable and why?

When I started researching my book in 2003, I soon became aware of several web sites devoted to collections of early computers.  The number of such sites has grown steadily over the years, evidence perhaps that there is a sizable community of computer collectors out there in cyberspace.  Vintage computers do occasionally appear on Ebay but collecting them doesn’t seem to have gone mainstream yet, as there is certainly no sign of computers featuring in any of the many television programmes, magazines and books devoted to antiques and collectables.

Thankfully, computers are becoming more common as museum exhibits and there are now several museums devoted exclusively to computer technology.  Two excellent examples are the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park in the UK.  There are also a number of projects aimed at restoring or conserving important early computers, the most famous of which is probably the Colossus Rebuild Project.  In the UK, much of this activity is led by the Computer Conservation Society which was founded in 1989 to preserve historic computers, develop awareness of the history of computing and encourage research.

Historic computers of national importance such as Colossus are clearly valuable and should be preserved for posterity.  But what about the many thousands of different models of computer that were aimed at the commercial market.  Are any of these worth collecting?  Valuing such items will be difficult, as price guides don’t exist and the attributes used for valuing antiques, such as intrinsic value (i.e. the cost of the materials and manufacture), craftsmanship and decorative value, don’t really apply to computers.  Fortunately, there are some which do apply, such as rarity, provenance and condition, so these would be a good starting point.

Other factors to consider might include sentimental value, such as where someone wishes to obtain an example of their first computer.  On the negative side, the physical size of a computer is likely to dampen its desirability, as few private collectors will have the space in their homes for a collection of room-sized mainframes or minicomputers.  Whether the computer is in working order or not is an interesting one.  Would a collector really want to operate an early computer and run software on it?

I’d like to think that historical importance would be a major factor in determining the value of a vintage computer but this can be difficult to assess and there is often wide disagreement over which computer should have credit for a particular commercial or technological breakthrough.  To illustrate this, try typing “first personal computer” into Google.

It will be interesting to see which of the three early microcomputers being auctioned in Germany later this month fetches the highest price.  In terms of historical importance, it should probably be the Scelbi-8H which was the first general-purpose microcomputer to reach the market.  However, few people have heard of Scelbi whereas Apple products engender fierce loyalty amongst their many admirers so the Apple-1 is likely to win the day.

So, which computers would be worth collecting?  My money would be on iconic personal computers, such as the three early microcomputers featured in this month’s auction, or early portable computers such as the Osborne 1 from 1981 and the GRiD Compass 1100 from 1982.  Mechanical calculators might also be a good bet due to their relative rarity.  My personal favourite is the Alpina Universal Calculator from 1961.  Manufactured in West Germany, the Alpina was in production for only a year.  I’m fortunate to own one of these amazing little machines.  Perhaps this could be the start of a collection!

Alpina

Teashop Technology

In my day job as a Business Development Manager at the University of Glasgow, I’m always looking for good case studies on the benefits of business-university collaboration.  One industry sector that has benefited enormously from university expertise is the computer industry.  A fascinating example of this is a project which dates back to the very start of the industry in the UK.  It involved a collaboration between catering firm J Lyons & Company and the University of Cambridge to develop the first computer specifically for business use.  Amazingly, this landmark project in the history of technology grew out of a simple requirement for the company to more accurately monitor sales of cakes throughout its chain of teashops.

The project started in May 1949 when the Lyons board took the decision to build an electronic computer to serve the company’s growing data processing needs.  This bold decision had been prompted by a fact-finding visit to the USA by two senior managers of the company, Raymond Thompson and Oliver Standingford, two years earlier in May 1947.  Despite the mundane nature of the company’s products, Lyons had a refreshingly forward-thinking attitude to business and had pioneered innovative management techniques in its quest for office efficiency.  Thompson and Standingford’s original remit had been to investigate wartime developments in office systems and equipment but this was extended to include computers following tantalising snippets of information that were beginning to appear in the press about US developments in electronic computation.

During their trip Thompson and Standingford met with Herman Goldstine, a leading figure in the US computer research community, who informed them of efforts to develop a computer taking place much closer to home at the University of Cambridge.  The Cambridge group was led by the pioneering computer scientist Maurice Wilkes.  Wilkes had been one of a handful of non-US academics invited to attend a series of lectures held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering in the summer of 1946 to disseminate the results of US government-sponsored research into electronic digital computers.  Top of the agenda was one of the Moore School’s own projects, a radical new computer design based on a stored-program architecture.  This was the breakthrough which would turn electronic computers from sequence-controlled calculators into powerful machines capable of carrying out all manner of complex tasks.  Fired up by what he had seen and heard on his visit to the US, Wilkes began working on his own version of this design during the voyage home.  The machine would be called the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC).

Goldstine arranged for Thompson and Standingford to be contacted by the Cambridge group on their return to the UK.  Following positive discussions, Lyons agreed to donate £3,000 in cash plus the services of an electronics technician for 1 year to support the Cambridge group in the development of EDSAC in return for advice on the company’s plans for computerisation of its data processing operation.  These extra resources helped the Cambridge group to not only catch up with but to overtake the far more experienced Moore School team in the race to construct the world’s first full-scale stored-program computer.  The fruitful relationship between Lyons and Cambridge continued beyond the initial 1-year agreement and when the company finally took the decision to build its own computer, it was obvious to all concerned that this should be based on EDSAC.  The result was the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO), the world’s first business computer.

LEOBuilt at a cost of £150,000, LEO featured a 17-bit word length and a clock speed of 526 KHz.  Like other full-scale computers of the pre-transistor era, LEO was the size of a room.  Its electronic circuits were constructed using thousands of bulky thermionic valves and its capacious 2,048-word memory was made up of 64 individual acoustic delay lines, long cylinders filled with liquid mercury that stored data in the form of sound waves.  Input and output was via punched cards and paper tape.

LEO ran its first live data processing job in November 1951, calculating the value of cakes, pies and pastries for dispatch to Lyons’ retail and wholesale outlets.  As one of the first electronic computers in the UK, LEO also attracted considerable attention from organisations interested in using the machine for scientific applications.  Lyons was able to take advantage of this situation by making LEO available to a number of these organisations on a fee paying basis in what was probably the earliest example of a computing bureau service.

LEO was conceived for internal use only but the enormous interest in the project prompted Lyons to enter the computer industry and a subsidiary company, LEO Computers Limited, was created in November 1954 to manufacture computers “for sale or hire”.  LEO Computers later merged with the Data Processing & Control Systems Division of English Electric to form English Electric Leo Computers which eventually became part of International Computers Limited (ICL).  On its formation in 1968, ICL was the largest non-US manufacturer of computers with a workforce of over 34,000 employees.

So are there any lessons that businesses today can learn from the success of the LEO project?  Here are three I can think of:-

  1. Play to each other’s strengths.  Lyons took a lead from the Cambridge group on the design of the hardware for LEO.  This allowed the company to focus its efforts on developing the application software, a task which made the best use of in-house expertise in office systems.  The company also subcontracted much of the construction work to other firms.
  2. Don’t be tempted to reinvent the wheel.  The LEO developers did not try to create the most advanced machine possible.  LEO’s conservative design was closely based on EDSAC which itself was closely based on the Moore School’s design.  Proven components and subsystems were chosen over newer technologies.  This combination of modest design goals and the use of readily available technology facilitated speed to market.
  3. Seconding staff can be one of the most effective methods of transferring knowledge from one organisation to another.  The technician chosen for the secondment, Ernest Lenaerts, quickly became a valued member of the Cambridge group.  When Lenaerts later returned to the company, the knowledge he had gained transferred back with him, making the job of building LEO much easier.

If you want to read more about LEO, I can recommend the book A Computer Called LEO by Georgina Ferry.  Also worth reading is Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer by Maurice V Wilkes.  My own book will also cover the development of EDSAC in Chapter 5 and LEO in Chapter 6.

The Military Origins of Electronic Computers

The BBC News web site carried an article last week about the tragic death of a British soldier in Afghanistan.  What made this story different from the depressingly constant stream of similar reports was that his death was caused by a data error.  He was killed by a smoke shell fired from a British artillery weapon which fell short of its target due to an error in the data used to compensate for the effects of weather conditions on the shell’s flight.  The computer system which would normally provide this data automatically was not working so the gunners had to input the data manually.  Unfortunately, they used the wrong data, with tragic consequences.

Ironically, one of the driving forces behind the development of electronic computers was the need for accurate artillery firing tables.  In the days before fully computerised fire control systems, these tables provided the settings that gunners require to compensate for the effects of external factors (such as wind speed and direction, air temperature and the rotation of the Earth) on the trajectory of an artillery shell.  However, the preparation of such tables was very labour intensive, with a single trajectory taking two full working days to calculate using a mechanical desk calculator, and the increased demand for them during World War II prompted the US Army to fund the development of calculating machinery which could speed up this process.  This resulted in the development of the first general-purpose electronic digital calculator, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC).

ENIAC

ENIAC was developed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering in Philadelphia.  The completed machine weighed over 30 tonnes and its cabinets lined the walls of a room 50 feet long by 30 feet wide.  Although ENIAC’s main purpose was to perform calculations for artillery firing tables, it also possessed the flexibility to cope with a wider range of computational problems.  The insights which the ENIAC project team gained through providing this extra flexibility led directly to the development of the stored-program computers that we use today.

The two men who led the development of ENIAC, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, went on to create the UNIVAC I, one of the first computers to reach the market.  UNIVAC I was designed primarily for business data processing but its origins, and the origins of all stored-program electronic digital computers, can be traced back to the US Army’s need for artillery firing tables during World War II.

A Wealth of Information

One of the great challenges in writing a non-fiction book is gathering the primary source material.  Since I began writing 10 years ago, the quantity and quality of information available on computers and the computer industry via the Web has increased enormously.  I’m fortunate to have access to the massive collection of over 2.5 million books and journals in the University of Glasgow Library through my day job but in most cases I can now find the information I need simply by typing some carefully chosen keywords into a search engine and clicking on a few links.  It’s amazing to think that only 20 years ago much of the material used in the preparation of this book would have been extremely difficult or in some cases impossible to find.  Now anyone with a smartphone and an Internet connection can access it online.

I plan to create a comprehensive list of available online resources at some point in the future.  In the meantime, here are a few I’ve found to be particularly useful:-

Fumbling the Future

As part of my research for Chapter 12, I’ve recently finished reading the book Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, then Ignored, the First Personal Computer.  The book was written in 1999 by Douglas K Smith and Robert C Alexander, two Harvard educated management consultants.  It chronicles the establishment of Xerox PARC, a corporate research facility set up by the US photocopier giant in 1970 to support the company’s diversification into computers, and the subsequent creation of a groundbreaking personal computer system by one of the most inventive research groups in the history of the computer.

Fumbling the Future does a good job of explaining why Xerox needed to diversify in the first place and describing the corporate politics which prevented the company from taking full advantage of the amazing computer technology developed at PARC.  Where the book isn’t quite so authoritative, however, is when it comes to the technology itself.

One of the reasons for the commercial failure of the personal interactive computer systems developed at PARC was that Xerox did not recognise the changes taking place elsewhere in the computer industry.  The Xerox Alto and its commercial offspring the Xerox 8010 Star were based on a minicomputer architecture but while they were being developed the industry was moving away from minicomputer-based systems to low-cost microcomputers.  By the time that the Star was introduced in April 1981, the market was already awash with inexpensive microcomputers from companies such as Apple, Commodore and Radio Shack.  The Star was clearly a superior product with a revolutionary graphical user interface which made it much easier to use than other personal computers but it was also much more expensive, costing more than 10 times as much as an Apple II.  When IBM introduced the 5150 PC a few months later in August 1981, the struggling Xerox Star was dead in the water.

Fortunately for Xerox, other technologies developed at PARC were successfully commercialised, such as Ethernet, which became the industry standard for connecting computers over a network, and the laser printer which generated many millions of dollars in product sales and licensing income for the company.  PARC also spawned numerous spin-outs, at least two of which (3Com and Adobe Systems) became household names.  Although Xerox failed to make money from it, PARC’s graphical user interface technology was the inspiration for both the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, and no modern personal computing device is complete without a user interface that owes its existence to the work of Xerox PARC.

Sample Chapter Added

I’ve now added a sample chapter from the book in PDF format which can be accessed by clicking on the Download button on the ‘Sample Chapter’ page. I chose Chapter 1 (Computer Prehistory – Calculating Machines) as, unlike later chapters, it doesn’t rely on other chapters to set the scene and can be read as a standalone work.

As the title suggests, this chapter covers the earliest efforts to mechanise calculation, from the calculating aids of John Napier through the mechanical calculators of Schickard, Pascal and Leibniz to the incredible engines of Charles Babbage.  To put these into context and provide a more rounded picture, it also covers the advances in engineering technology or ‘building blocks’ which facilitated the development of such machines.

Like many good stories, there are also elements of mystery. These include the discovery of a mysterious object in an ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900, which changed our perception of mechanical technology in the ancient world, and the role of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, who may or may not have been responsible for the first design for a calculating machine.

Feedback would be much appreciated but please note that the text has not yet benefited from the attention of a professional editor so don’t be too surprised if you spot the occasional typo or grammatical howler.

A New Web Site

I’ve done it. I’ve finally created a web site and blog to tell the world what I’ve been spending all my spare time working on for the past 10 years. My thanks to Dr Scott Sherwood who provided the motivational push to get me started and also recommended using WordPress to create and maintain the site. It’s been a number of years since I was involved in web site development and the technology would appear to have improved immensely! It’s early days but the only problems encountered so far have all been caused by using Internet Explorer 8 rather than one of the newer browsers. These problems were easily fixed by installing the latest version of Mozilla Firefox.

My next task will be to provide a sample chapter of the book which can be freely downloaded from the site.  I’ll also add some appropriate images to make the site look less boring.