[Humanist] 22.584 wonder

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 3 07:20:59 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 584.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 2 Mar 2009 08:06:04 -0800
        From: "Bleck, Bradley" <BradB at spokanefalls.edu>
        Subject: RE: [Humanist] 22.581 wonder
        In-Reply-To: <20090302064743.230242EE8D at woodward.joyent.us>

I just hope we can hang on to that sense of wonder, in all aspects of our studies. It's a great read for a rainy Monday morning to get the brain going. Thanks for posting it. 

Bradley Bleck
English Department
Spokane Falls CC

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                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 581.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 01 Mar 2009 08:07:32 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: wonder

In the third week of September 1949, as reported in Time Magazine for 26
September of that year, a large group of mathematicians, physical
and social scientists gathered at Harvard at the invitation of Howard
Aiken "to admire the latest of the great machines (large-scale
computers) that eat their way through oceans of figures like whales
grazing on plankton." The reporter notes that most of them were
"down-to-earth men who flinch from sensationalism". Fortunately for us
the reporter was not so down-to-earth, and so gives us a hint of the
wonder such machines could then evoke -- comparable, I suppose, to some
of the wonder felt by the early Russian revolutionaries for the
machinery of industrial production, of which to that time they had seen
very little. (ReR Megacorp, www.rermegacorp.com/, has just released
"Baku: Symphony of Sirens. Sound experiments in the Russian Avantgardes
(1908-1942)", which brilliantly documents musical and poetic expressions
of the apocalyptic excitement of that time.)

But back to Harvard in 1949. Here is how the Time reporter describes the
great machine (significantly compared to a whale):

> Some of the speakers won applause, but the real hero of the
> conference, holding court in the Computation Laboratory up the
> street, was a machine: the Mark III Computer, built by Harvard for
> the Navy at a cost of $500,000. From the front, the Mark III looks
> like a giant radio panel, with a clean, serene dignity. But behind
> the panel hides a nightmare of pulsing, twitching, flashing
> complexity. Thousands of metal parts, big & little, all polished like
> costume jewelry, compete in frenetic activity. They hum and clack and
> chirp and roar like a hive of mechanical insects. Among them glow the
> filaments of 4,500 vacuum tubes, and between them run skeins of wire,
> 100 miles in all, with 400,000 soldered connections. The Mark III is
> so complicated that no one in the laboratory was willing to talk
> authoritatively about all of it.
> Inner Memory. What can the Mark III do? For one thing, it can
> multiply two 16-digit numbers in a little more than twelve
> one-thousandths of a second. But this prodigious speed gives little
> idea of the machine's talents. Its strong point is its "inner
> memory." This "memory" consists of nine big aluminum cylinders
> revolving up to 7,200 r.p.m. Their surfaces are coated with black
> magnetic material. Huddled around them are staggered rows of little
> brass blocks enclosing electromagnets. When a brief electric impulse
> flashes through an electromagnet, it prints a dot of magnetism on the
> spinning cylinder's surface. The dot stands for part of a coded
> number for the machine to store in its memory."
> The nine cylinders can store 4,000 numbers of 16 digits each and
> 4,000 coded "commands." In response to the proper command (either
> remembered or coming from outside), the numbers are "read off"
> electrically. They zip through the machine as coded electrical
> pulses. Basically the process is similar to a man's pulling a
> telephone number out of his memory and spinning it on a dial. With
> the aid of-its vast mechanical memory for numbers and commands, the
> machine can solve in a flash a complicated equation involving
> thousands of numbers and thousands of operations. It can do its trick
> tirelessly, over & over again, varying one or more of the factors in
> the equation. It prints the result (e.g. the range of a naval shell
> at different gun elevations) in the form of a neat table, as fast as
> electric typewriters can rattle the figures out. To do a comparable
> job by hand would take an army of trained mathematicians.

The learned observers were no doubt somewhat more sober in their
assessments, but from the article one can infer a barely contained
intellectual explosion. The reporter notes,

> Problems for All. The conference proved that hardly a science or
> branch of technology lacks problems for the computers. Physicists,
> chemists, aircraft designers had plenty of them to offer. So did
> psychologists and physiologists. Even sociologists wanted to use the
> machines, though they did not quite know how to go about it. All the
> scientists agreed that the large-scale calculators would encourage
> them to tackle many problems from which they had been scared away by
> computation difficulties.
> A promising field is economics. Professor Wassily W. Leontief of
> Harvard explained that when economists try to figure out how the
> innumerable industries of a nation or continent affect one another,
> they run into a bramble-patch of interlaced figures. He hoped that
> the great calculators, by breaking this numerical barrier, might give
> nations a hint on how to keep their economies balanced.

Problems put aside because the calculations were too difficult or simply
tiresome to carry out, others not even noticed because they were not
within the bounds of practical possibility suddenly seem doable, are
visible. The hope for keeping economies balanced was, however, perhaps a
bit optimistic.

Putting together remarks by Herman Goldstine (Computers from Pascal to von
Neumann, 1972) and Doron Swade (on Babbage's engines) together, one can say
that until the materials, engineering and mathematics came together to make
computers in our sense possible -- thanks in part to World War II -- there
were only visions and arrested experiments. Then, rather suddenly, there
were computers. Today we take the edge off the experience chronicled above,
and so partially falsify it, by finding (or is it in some sense creating?)
precedents in ideas, plans and devices selected from the swarm.


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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