[Humanist] 22.546 it's not just the hardware

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Feb 19 09:25:48 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 546.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2009 08:39:35 +0000
        From: "John G. Keating" <John.Keating at nuim.ie>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.538 it's not (just) the hardware

Dear Willard,

I couldn't agree more ... with  Stibitz ... environment is so much  
more important than the technologies. Most of the really important  
stuff I have learned about computing and computation has come from a  
group of researchers whose environment (i.e. collaboration, dynamic  
and enquiring scientific culture, willingness to disseminate, etc.):  
I'm talking about Richard Feynman, John Hopfield and Carver Mead. In  
particular, their course  “The Physics of Computation” jointly taught  
at Caltech in 1982, and subsequent publications on the limits of  
computation are inspiring (and not just because the material is  
wonderful). Of course, I was only starting my undergrad career in  
physics at that time and could only hear about what was happening  
there! Nevertheless, there is a great textbook which give some  
flavor :) of the environment and the impact on technology generation.  
I'm sure many of you already know the text:

Feynman and computation: exploring the limits of computers, Anthony J.  
G. Hey (Ed.), Perseus Books  Cambridge, MA, USA.

I think it is a "must read" for anyone interested in computation,  
physics and the distinction between engineering, applied science (and,  
dare I say it, theory!).

Best, John.

On 17 Feb 2009, at 06:42, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 538.
>         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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>
>        >
> 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)
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> 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.

Dr. John G. Keating
Associate Director
An Foras Feasa: The Institute for Research in Irish Historical and  
Cultural Traditions
National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Maynooth, Co. Kildare, IRELAND

Email:	john.keating at nuim.ie
Tel: 		+353 1 708 3854
FAX:	+353 1 708 4797

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