[Humanist] 22.538 it's not (just) the hardware

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Feb 17 07:42:38 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 538.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 16 Feb 2009 15:23:59 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: it's not (just) the hardware

In Henry S. Tropp's paper on his experiences during the early days of 
computing, "The Smithsonian Computer History Project and Some Personal 
Recollections", in N. Metropolis, J. Howlett and Gian-Carlo Rota, eds., 
A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century (Academic Press, 1980), 
he records an interview with George Stibitz, who was involved in 
devising the early Bell Laboratories Relay machines -- early computers. 
In the following, which relates an events that happened ca. 1937, he is 
talking about the Bell MOD K relay machine:

> As Stibitz told me, it all began one night sitting around his
> kitchen, which is where the K comes from: the Kitchen Computer. He
> had been doing research on relays, and it suddenly struck him that
> one ought to be able to do binary arithmetic with relays. So he took
> some relays he had at home and went out to his shop in his garage. He
> got a small, approximately 1-ft-square piece of plywood, put a few
> relays on it, and discovered he could indeed represent one-digit
> binary addition in this manner. The next morning, he took this to the
> laboratory and showed it to a few people there, and they said, "You
> know, that is really interesting." (pp. 118f)

Tropp then asks Stibitz why he was thinking about binary addition, and 
Stibitz attributes this to studying with a man who was himself 
interested in the topic. But what I want to draw your attention to is 
Tropp's historiographical conclusion to this interview:

> As is now realized, we had the technical capability to build relay,
> electromechanical, and even electronic calculating devices into
> being. I think one can conjecture when looking through Babbage's
> papers, or even at the Jacquard loom, that we had the technical
> capability to do calculation with some motive power like steam. The
> realization of this capability was not dependent on technology as
> much as it was on the existing pressures (or lack of them), and an
> environment in which these needs could sympathetically be brought to
> some level of realization. (p. 119)



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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