Thursday, December 29, 2011

Soviet computer is 60

Engadget reports that the, "MESM project, which just marked the 60th anniversary of its formal recognition by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The project, headed by Institute of Electrical Engineering director Sergey Lebedev, was born in a laboratory built from scratch amongst the post-World War II ruins of Ukrainian capital city, Kyiv, by a team of 20 people, many of whom took up residence above the lab. Work on MESM -- that's from the Russian for Small Electronic Calculating Machine -- began toward the end of 1948. By November 1950, the computer was running its first program. The following year, it was up and running full-time."
    This is interesting because after writing my chapter on WWII computing I was wondering about what other countries were doing computationally. Konrad Zuse, in Germany, is well known, but little seems to be published about Russian, Italian or Japanese computing during or just after the war. It seems unlikely that the Allies had the field of computing all to them selves. Wikipedia has this article on post war Soviet bloc computing, but I can find nothing about Japanese or Italian attempts or earlier Russian ones. If you have any information please let me know.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jack Goldman, Founder of Xerox PARC, Dies

Jack Goldman
Jack Goldman, in 1969, proposed that Xerox should have a research centre, just like the other big tech companies IBM and AT&T. He made the decision to locate it on the west coast, near Stanford University, and far away for Xerox's head office on the east coast. His decision was inspired and Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (or PARC) became a magnet for the techno-hippies of the Bay Area. PARC it was estimated soon employed 50% of the computer scientists in the US.
    Researchers at PARC went on to invent the graphical user interface (GUI), the mouse, networked computers (the Ethernet), postscript, the laser printer and object orientated programming. If you are using a computer today it can can trace much of its origin back to Xerox PARC. You can read the full story in Chapter 6 Deadheads and Propeller Heads of my book. The complete story of PARC is fascinating and is told in detail in Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michale Hiltzik. Why Xerox didn't become the most powerful IT company in the world, bigger than Microsoft or IBM is a moot point. Some say incompetent, visionless, executives. But, hindsight gives us 20/20 vision and rather simply a photocopier company just couldn't grasp a future dominated by inexpensive software and computers.

PARC still exists and its website is here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brazilian Computer Museum

I just came across a Computer Museum in San Paulo, Brazil because its curator asked me for a copy of The Universal Machine. If you are in the vicinity these holidays it looks worth a visit.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Seasons Greetings to everyone who has stumbled across or followed this blog during 2011. The book "The Universal Machine" is now off at the publishers in Germany. This blog will continue in 2012 to post items about the history and future of computing and will of course keep you posted on the book's publication.

[If you're thinking, "How sad, blogging on Christmas Day!" don't worry; the blog has a "schedule" tool so posts can be written in advance and are scheduled to be posted at a certain time and date.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Other half of Babbage's brain found!

Charles Babbage & half his brain
If you follow this blog you'll know that earlier in the year I visited the London Science Museum to see the replica of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No.2. It was fascinating, but I was surprised to see that they had half of Babbage's brain pickled in a jar on display. Why I wondered did they half half of his brain? It didn't seem to serve any educational purpose. Also, where was the other half? This continued to occasionally trouble me. The mystery has been solved thanks to Wikipedia; the other half is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. I don't know if it's on display there (perhaps somebody can tell us). I haven't visited the Hunterian Museum, but I did visit the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh in August, which was fascinating. A little macabre and ghoulish but very interesting.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Computer History Museum - Steve Jobs

2011 will of course be remembered, amongst other things, as the year in which Steve Jobs died. The outpouring of public grief from around the world was similar to the passing of John Lennon, Princess Diana or Michael Jackson. Over a million tributes were left on Apple's memorial webpage and fans (for that is what we must call them) left tributes and offerings at Apple stores around the globe.
    The Computer History Museum has a very informative tribute to Steve Jobs if you still need more information about this remarkable man. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

iPhone 5 predictions

Since it's near the end of the year it's a good time to make some predictions for 2012. Remind me to come back next year to see if my predictions were correct.
    Of course there will be an iPhone 5 released in 2012. This would fit the now historic pattern of releases: 3, 3S, 4, 4S, 5. The iPhone 5 will obviously support the new 4G cellular wireless standard. It's a bit of a shame that the iPhone numbering has got out of sync with the technology but I guess we'll not be moving on from 4G anytime soon so we'll not notice for long.
    Many pundits are predicting that the iPhone 5 will have a larger 4" screen as shown in the mock-up to the right. I predict this will not happen. The iPhone's 3.5" screen is no accident. It's big enough and not too small. I think people really don't understand Apple if they think they will bring out bigger screens for the iPhone and smaller screens for the iPad. Their dimensions were very carefully selected to be fit for purpose. Apple don't need to get into a "my screen's bigger than yours" battle but they do want to keep life simple for their app developers. That said if the iPhone 5 is to have a different design, as we'd expect from the new numeral designator, then it's hard to see how they can improve on the gorgeous (IMHO) iPhone 4. Slightly slimmer, slightly lighter perhaps. An A6 quad-core processor, almost certainly. Better screen resolution, but what's the point, it's already perfect. A better camera? Again, isn't 8 Mega pixels enough? I think you can see that after four years of rapid progress, smartphone hardware evolution is possibly reaching a plateau. We just don't need more grunt and higher and higher resolutions; better battery life, RFID they would be useful.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Punch cards

Babbage's punch cards
Science Museum, London
Most people today don't remember punch cards, but for decades they were an important means of programming computers. Though I never used them, my first computer lab still had card punch machines and card readers, and some "old timers" still used them. Charles Babbage first thought of using them for his Analytical Engine, both to input programs and store data. He got the idea of course from the Jacquard Loom that used punch cards to input complex lace designs into lace weaving looms.
    Though not used by modern computers, punch cards are still used by knitting machines to input designs, as you can see from the card below.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Heinz Nixdorf Museum - Turing Exhibition

Turing's statue, Bletchley Park
If you're in or near Germany you may be interested in the special exhibition "Eminent & enigmatic - 10 aspects of Alan Turing," which is opening at the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn from January and will run for the entire year.
Information about all the events taking place globally to commemorate Turing centenary can be found at the Alan Turing Year website.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Google sponsors Turing centenary exhibition

Good news. Google is supporting two exhibitions exploring the history of computing at the Science Museum in London. The first will celebrate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the English mathematician and WWII codebreaker who is considered the “father” of computing. His theoretical idea, the Turing Machine, is the foundation of the modern computer. The exhibition is intended to inspire a new generation of scientists and innovators and will showcase how the legacy of Turing's universal machine is shaping our future.
My book should be the perfect companion to the exhibition.
The second exhibition in 2014 will showcase communications technology.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bill Gates arrested... Albuquerque, New Mexico after a traffic violation in 1977. Here's his police mugshot.
Now the book's finished I thought I'd post some entertaining snippets from the book on the blog. I was looking for a public domain photo of the young Bill Gates - he was 22 in this photo. This photo is a "public record" under New Mexico law and hence is in the public domain. Micro-Soft (yes with a hyphen) was then based in Albuquerque to be close to MITS, which made the Altair kit computer for which Micro-Soft was making BASIC. The thing I love about this photo is how happy Gates looks. Is he thinking, "My father is a really wealthy lawyer." or, "I'm going to be the richest man in the world." Check out that shirt collar as well.

Friday, December 16, 2011


It's finished! I've just finished the book, I'm uploading it to Apple's MobileMe cloud drive so my publisher can download a 114MB compressed archive containing: a preface, table of contents, 14 chapters, further reading, two appendices, all the images in the highest resolution possible (with their copyright status) and some ideas for the book cover. To be honest I don't want to let it go. I know I could improve it and there'll still be a few errors in it.
    Now it's over to the team at Springer.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Google make big donation to Bletchley Park Trust

A dilapidated WWII hut at Bletchley Park
Google have donated £550,000 towards the match funding needed for the Bletchley Park Trust to embark on the first stage of a £15 million project to transform the site into a world-class heritage and education centre.  The Heritage Lottery Fund announced a £4.6 million grant for the Bletchley Park Trust in October 2011.  It is a pre-condition that in order to draw down the funding to commence the current stage of the £15 million project, the Trust must have raised the match funding required to complete the package.
    As you can see from the photo I took at Bletchley earlier in the year there is plenty of work needed to restore and maintain the old WWII huts were Alan Turing and others broke the Nazi Enigma & Lorenz codes. You can make a donation by following this link:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New website - digital promotion

I now have a website for The Universal Machine, ready for publicizing the book when it's published next year. At the moment there's not much there - just the book's Twitter feed and a feed from this blog. Once the book is published there will be purchasing information, some videos and podcasts and reviews of the book (hopefully good ones).
The URL for the website is:

I now have all the elements in place for the digital promotion of the book: website, Twitter account, Facebook page, Google+ pageblog and an author's page.

Monday, December 12, 2011

T minus 5

T minus 5 and counting. The manuscript is being delivered to the publisher on Friday so I'm into the final week and the final revisions. I've been sourcing copyright free pictures for the book and once again Wikipedia has been a godsend. Nearly all of their images are under a Creative Commons licence or in the public domain and the copyright is very clearly explained for each image. That is so useful as it means my publisher can be certain they're not infringing anyone's copyright. Sourcing dozens of images legally would have been a nightmare before Wikipedia.
    Probably the most amusing is one of a young Bill Gates; he's posing for a police mugshot taken in Albuquerque, New Mexico police in 1977 after a traffic violation. Gates looks like he's really enjoying himself in the photo. Perhaps he's thinking, "my father's a wealthy lawyer." Check it out on Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Turing - Breaking the Code

The Oxford Times has published a preview of the play Breaking the Code about the life and death of Alan Turing which will soon be having a five week run in Oxford. If you're in the vicinity it sounds like it will be good. The  article also describes how the playwright Hugh Whitemore recalls how he received a call from a Hollywood film producer, offering a very large sum for the film rights. Untold riches beckoned, but: “Just two things: I don’t want this guy to be a faggot, and for God’s sake cut out all the mathematics!” 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

QI XL Turing and the Apple Logo

There was a large section devoted to Alan Turing in the BBC show QI XL (series 1 episode 13, broadcast Dec 2 2011), which features Stephen Fry and a panel of guests answering difficult but interesting questions. The theme of the recent show was "intelligence." During this there was a question on Enigma which was used as a lead into Alan Turing. Stephen Fry brought up the subject of Apple's logo (an Apple with a bite out of it) allegedly being in honour of Alan Turing, who died after purposefully eating an apple poisoned with cyanide. Stephen Fry recalls asking Steve Jobs (they were friends) if the rumours were true. Jobs replied, “It isn't true, but God we wish it were!” So finally and officially, right from the horses mouth as it were, this rumour is debunked. However, there is no harm in remembering Turing when you look at Apple's logo.
The episode of QI XL can be viewed in the BBC iPlayer if you live in the UK.

    Update: The British Comedy Guide now confirms this and it has appeared on Turing's Wikipedia entry.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Google+ vs. Facebook

There's been an increasing number of articles from the digerati along the lines of will Google+ beat Facebook? At first sight this seems a ridiculous proposition; Facebook has 800 million and growing users compared to Google+'s 50 million and growing - no competition right. Well perhaps not. Google+'s great strength is that it is becoming integrated into everything you do on the web. For example if you use YouTube you'll have seen that it's interface has changed and now Google+ is tightly integrated into it. Picasa, Google's photo management service, will undergo a similar refit in a few weeks. The idea is that as you go about your digital life you'll never be more than a click away from Google+ and that it will constantly be recommending stuff to you.
    By comparison Facebook's weakness is that you have to be inside Facebook to get any interaction from you friends. Now clearly some people virtually live inside Facebook but most of us don't and therefore Google+ is a more natural model since it will basically follow us around the web. Moreover Google+'s "Circles," despite what Zuckerberg may say, is a more natural way to manage ones online relationships in comparison to Facebook's one size fits all approach. Facebook know's this which is why it rushed out its "Groups" feature.
    As Google continues to integrate Google+ into its services I'll be watching it and Facebook with interest.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Challenge and Promise of Artificial Intelligence (audio)

On Nov 5 The Computer History Museum presented The Challenge and Promise of Artificial Intelligence. Dr. Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research and Dr. Peter Norvig of Google discussed the past, present, and future of artificial intelligence, moderated by KQED's Tim Olson. The talk includes everything from machine learning to data-driven science, the world of perception, speech recognition, robotics, self-driving cars, and even a computer called Watson. The talk was broadcast on KQED radio and an mp3 can be heard here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The writing process

I'm into almost the last week of writing The Universal Machine and I've been asked about my writing process. So here, in general terms, is how I have approached the writing.
    For each chapter I've thought about a general idea of what I want to include and eventually I sketch this down as a rough outline or plan. During this time I'll be reading books about the subject material and using online reference sources. If it's a book I'll use those Post-It tabs to mark pages with useful content on. If its on online resource I use Evernote to clip parts of it. Then once the reading is finished I'll start writing using the marked parts of the books and Evernote as my reference sources. Wikipedia is used to check facts and add details. It's great for facts but very poor for adding colour which has to come from biographies or first-hand recollections. Once a chapter is written I'll put it to bed and move on to something else. Then, I'll return and read/edit the chapter several times. Once I'm reasonably happy with the chapter it is emailed to a good friend who is a professional writer. He reads and picks up mistakes and makes suggestions for improvements. Each chapter is also sent out to one or more academics/specialists with an interest in computer history or specific subject areas to check the factual content and identify potential omissions.
    All of the returned chapters are edited to take into account the feedback and the chapters are then reread and edited over and over. I estimate that most chapters have been reread and edited at least a dozen times. I've been working on this over a year now and  I'll be sad when I finally package it up and send it to my publisher. I've had a great time writing this.

At what temperature do e-books burn?

Simon & Schuster have just announced that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is now, for the first time, officially available as an e-book. The 1953 dystopian novel is about a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen start fires to burn books. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper (ie books burn). I wonder at what temperature a Kindle burns? Perhaps Bradbury should rewrite the story, so a new generation can appreciate it on a Kindle Fire.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sketchpad - almost 50 years old and still revolutionary

I came across this video on Google+ of Alan Kay presenting Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad (aka the Robot Draftsman). This was a revolutionary program written by Ivan Sutherland in 1963 for his PhD thesis that changed the way people interacted with computers. Sketchpad is  the ancestor of modern computer-aided drafting (CAD). The Graphical User Interface (GUI) was derived from Sketchpad (it was the first program to use a "window") as well as object oriented programming. Ivan Sutherland demonstrated with Sketchpad that computer graphics could be used for artistic and technical purposes in addition to showing a new method of human-computer interaction. Sutherland received the Turing Award (computing's highest honour) in 1988. 

 This video is an excerpt of a longer one here.  Sutherland's Ph.D. thesis from MIT was reprinted in 1980 as Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System.