[Humanist] 29.438 the computing centre

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Oct 31 09:34:45 CET 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 438.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 30 Oct 2015 17:54:26 +0000
        From: Simon Rae <simon.rae at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  29.434 the computing centre
        In-Reply-To: <20151030073441.2C1B36D12 at digitalhumanities.org>


I think 'the passing of time' is one of the things lost. 

When remembering computer centres with their huge, intently chattering mainframe machines and users I recall a story in The Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1660754.The_Psychology_of_Computer_Programming). Post-grad students who were employed at a US University in the '60/70s to provide a computing helpdesk service to other users started complaining to the administration that they had suddenly been inundated with work and that they couldn't cope. On investigation it was realised that some short time before, in a reorganisation and general tidying-up of the computer suite (probably driven by Health&Safety issues!), the coffee machine had been taken away. Users, having collected their output, would stand untidily around the machine and chat through any errors that the output showed up, and more often than not they would solve their own problems by talking them through with other users. But when they didn't have the coffee machine to stand around they went straight to the helpdesk! Management had inadvertently deprived users from the benefits of interacting informally with other users (potentially from other disciplines) and learning for themselves at the water-cooler/coffee machine and had increased the workload on the helpdesk.

Modern, tiny, silent laptops with much more power than 'ye olde mainframes' unfortunately afford users the ability to compute in the privacy and seclusion of their office or home; talking through programming difficulties with non-faculty on an enforced interdisciplinary coffee break is now no longer an option. 

Plus, of course, the exercise was good for you, computer centres were never very close!

Simon Rae

twitter: @simonrae
retired Lecturer in Professional Development (Open University)

> On 30 Oct 2015, at 07:34, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>        Date: Thu, 29 Oct 2015 09:56:56 +0000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: envisioning the computing centre
> Vannevar Bush seems to have been among the first, if not the first, to 
> envision what later became the computing centre. Then Professor of 
> Electrical Power Transmission at the Massachusetts Institute of 
> Technology, Bush wrote about his Integraph (predecessor of the 
> Differential Analyzer), in the Tech Engineering News in 1928, vol. 9, 
> and went on to comment,
>> An accurate, comprehensive machine of this sort is inherently
>> expensive, and hence we will see few such machines built for some
>> time. Rather it is to be expected that there will be a few centers
>> where work of this sort will be carried on, and where such devices
>> will be available to those who can use them to advantage.
> Does this remain a question of economics only? What have we lost (or 
> what has resurfaced in other forms) with the passing of the time when to 
> compute you had to walk a distance and enter a great place of hulking, 
> noisy machinery?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
> Group, University of Western Sydney

More information about the Humanist mailing list