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Making the history of computing relevant : Day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:37

Session: Putting the history of computing into different contexts

The voice of the meachine: Tom Lean

Tom Lean from the British Library kicked off the second day with a presentation about a project that he is currently working on: An oral history of British Science (blog).  An important part of this project is about the history of computing.  A part of Tom’s role is to travel around the country to interview different people.  Each interview takes between 10-15 hours in length.  They are biographical; people are encouraged to talk about themselves, their environment, tools and procedures.

This lifestory approach to interviewing allows us to get a sense of the person themselves, their mannerisms and how they sound.  It allows us to have a more direct connection with the subject and those people who played a part in its development.  The longer interviews are edited down to highlights, which will then be made available through the British Library History of Science project website. I understand that researchers will be able to gain access to the entire interviews.

Tom gave us a taste of the interviews by showing us a clip of Ray Bird taking about the HEC1 computer (YouTube).  (For the interested, there’s also an Oral History of British Science YouTube channel).  The second clip was an interview of Mary Lee Berners-Lee (Wikipedia) who spoke about ‘what’s fun about programming’.

All in all, a great talk and a great initiative.  As an aside, I remember discovering another archive of oral histories of computing (University of Minnesota), which have been collected by the Babbage Institute.  Different interviews by different people (and institutions) are likely to explore and expose different issues.  Both archives are invaluable to present and future researchers.

Telling the long and beautiful (hi)story of automation: Marie d’Udekem-Gevers

Marie took us on a tour of devices that relate to the history of computing, offering us a slightly different perspective.   Computing can also be understood in terms of mechanisms, mechanisation and automation, which eventually takes us towards data processing.  We can also think of the history of computing in terms of generations, but there is also an important pre-history that we need to be aware of too. 

When we think of the pre-history of computing we might also consider mechanical and water clocks, the development of the Jacquard Loom (Wikipedia).   There is also the work of Pascal (who was mentioned earlier) and Babbage (whose trial machines are exhibited within the Science Museum).  Marie introduced a simple distinction: internal versus external representations (and memory).

The difference between the two is that we can easily (and obviously) see external representations (of information), captured within cards, or as notches on a rotating wheel.  Modern computers, of course, make use of hidden internal representations.  The difference between internal and external connects to the notion of the immediately understandable and tangible versus the hidden and abstract nature of software.  This connects to a wider (and later) debate about what we can gain by exhibiting the more recent generation of computing devices.

Competing histories of the internet: Christopher Leslie

Christopher Leslie (PPY homepage) teaches the history of the internet technology at the Polytechnic Institute of New York.  During his talk, Christopher mentioned a couple of books – one that I have read, and another one that I had never heard of before.  The first is called, ‘where wizards stay up late’ by Hafner and Lyon.  The second was called ‘NERDS: a brief history of the internet’.  (There are, of course, a number of other books about the history of the internet, such as one called ‘A brief history of the future’ by a former Open University colleague). 

A couple of comments that Chris made echoed some that had been made during the previous day; that it is very easy to take a determinist view of the history of technology; that developments occur gradually and in a number of determined steps.  When it comes to the history of the internet, there have been a number of different systems and innovations, emerging from different countries and locations. One interesting note that I made was the development occurs through a series of transitions, that technology is moved from one context to another.

Chris mentioned the work of Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, and an important Association of Computing Machinery conference in 1967 where two people who had never met each other presented very similar ideas.  In fact, I’m read that the word ‘packet’ (as in the phrase ‘internet packet’) comes from Davies’s work, whereas the protocols that make the internet work come from the work in the US (of course, I’m impossibly simplifying a whole swathe of really important history and technical stuff here!)  Chris also mentioned the French network Cyclades (Wikipedia) which has also influenced the development of ‘the internet’.

I’ve also made a note of his point that the connections between people and communities are really important.  Although defence funding was necessarily important, it is the connections between people and a culture of openness that exists within an academic community that helps developments to occur.  Another really important point that I’ve made a note of is that we ‘need to fight determinism in the classroom!’  I totally agree. 

My ‘take away point’ from Christopher’s presentation was that things are a whole lot more complex than they really are; there isn’t one history – there are many.

Session: Games

I was initially surprised to see a session on games in this conference, but the reasons why (and the importance of its inclusion) soon became apparent.  This session resonated a lot with me, since I was once an avid player of games during the ‘cassette era’!  There is also an increasing awareness that is a whole history that relates to the use of computers in entertainment.

Games and gaming can also represent compelling museum exhibits; they can be potentially used to draw people in to other exhibits.  This is why this session also has the subtitle ‘games – and it’s potential as a Trojan horse’. 

The popular memory archive: Helen Stuckey

Helen Stuckey, who travelled all the way from Australia, talked about a project that was all about collecting and exhibiting player culture from the 1980s.  I never knew this, but apparently there was quite a unique gaming culture in Australia and many games were developed locally due to import restrictions. 

The popular memory archive is a web portal.  Gaming isn’t just restricted to the games as artefacts; there is a wider and richer picture of use and consumption that is important too.  The portal allows visitors to save or record player memories.  In the 1980s games were often the first way that people came into contact with computers (this was certainly my own experience).  I have my own memories of walking to a newsagent and agonising over which game to buy with my own pocket money.  This walk, and the action of loading the game into my Atari computer in my cramped bedroom could be considered as a part of my biography.

Other aspects of computing history include the history of production and the role of hobbies.  Helen showed us a logo of the ‘Melbourne House’ software company, which certainly remember from my teenage years.  At the time, it had never occurred to me that this was an Australian company.

One of the challenges lies with choosing what artefacts and issues to focus on.  Out of a potential 900 titles, 50 game titles were chosen.  Some of the themes that I’ve noted include businesses, rise of the bedroom coder, legal issues, and the role of the collector.

Fan sites, such as Hall of Light (a database of Commodore Amiga games) and Word of Spectrum also have an important role to play in terms of documenting history.  (I started to look into both of these sites, and quickly found hours of my life had disappeared!)

I found the idea of a web-based resource really interesting.  Just as we have citizen science projects, such as Galaxy Zoo, I can see that there is scope for participative, or citizen history sites.  When there are so many memories and products and experiences out there, crowdsourcing is undoubtedly a powerful approach.  I’m enthusiastic about old games, and after a quick search around on the web following Helen’s presentation, I can clearly see that I’m not alone.

Introduction of computer and video games in museums: Tiia Naskali

Tiia’s presentation was about a physical exhibition rather than a virtual one.  Tiia spoke about gaming from the Finnish perspective and the hobbyist era between 1980 and 1990.  (On reflection, this is an incredibly short period of time in which a whole lot happened). 

Connecting to some of the points that Helen mentioned, Tiia made the point that games are a part of life histories. They are important within popular culture and the work of that period can be shared and appreciated by a newer generations.

What struck me as really interesting was Tiia’s summary of different game exhibitions that had taken place across the world.  One of the most prominent was Game On which apparently began at the Barbican, London. 

Gaming exhibitions still will continue to have resonance today.  On the month of this conference, the latest generation of games consoles are receiving a lot of attention: the Xbox One (Wikipedia) and the Playstation 4 (Wikipedia).

This session led to questions relating to the challenges regarding digital preservation, i.e. whether we should be considering how to preserve digital worlds.  For those who are interested in this project, more information can be found by visiting a project website that also contains a link to a final report. Other points raised during the question and answer session related to the authenticity of gaming experience and the potential societal impact of the use of games, which is, of course, the subject of on-going research.

Session: The importance and challenges of working installations

Computer Conservation Society – Its story and experience: Roger Johnson

Roger Johnson introduced the Computer Conservation Society (society website).  It wasn’t an organisation that I had heard of before, but I’m so glad that I heard about it.  The society was the brain child of Doron Swade (Wikipedia), former curator of the science museum (who has written a cracking book about the trials and tribulations of building Babbage’s Difference Engine no 2).

The society is a joint venture with the Science Museum and the British Computer Society and currently has approximately 800 members.  It has a number of guiding principles.  Firstly, membership is open to all, and it is free.  It doesn’t own computers but has, instead, close links to museums.  It also has a small rescue fund.  This can be used to help preserve historically significant machines that might be at risk of being disposed. 

During Roger’s talk, I made a note of the phrase, ‘today is tomorrow’s history’.  Given that there is so much that is going on at the moment a challenge lies with understanding what should be captured. 

For those who are interested, the CCS also has its own newsletter, called Resurrection (CCS website).

Museums – what they can and should be doing : Charles Lindsey

Peter Onion, who works on the Elliott 803 (Wikipedia) at the National Museum of Computing (and probably does a whole range of other things too!) temporarily stepped in for Charles Lindsey (who was able to attend the question and answer session).

Peter, using Charles’s words spoke about the objectives of a museum.  Two objectives are to inform the public and to help serious researchers.  Peter argued that perhaps there is a third, which is to preserve (and to develop) the skills necessary for the maintenance and operation of the objects and to preserve the perspective of those who created them.

One really interesting (and important) point is that museums are about history, not fashion.  One question was whether computing history ended in 1980?  This echoed an earlier point that some modern computers can appear to be visually uninteresting; their mystery and complexity is hidden within integrated circuits.  Working (historic) machines have the potential to add and expose depth and may be able to more directly expose the details that make things work.   There is also the question of what stories we may tell, questions about what issues earlier engineers (and maintainers) may have faced, methods they used and tools they applied.

History, nostalgia and software: David Holdsworth

We all know that hardware without software is useless.  A laptop without an operating system or application software becomes a pointless and immutable mix of plastic, glass and electronics.   Software is the stuff of computing (you might almost call software its ‘oxygen’), but so much of it is lost.  One of the most obvious reasons is that software is inherently invisible, and increasingly so.  This raises the important question of how to go about preserving (and also potentially exhibiting) software.

David showed us an interesting couple of web pages; an implementation of the Algol-60 programming language (Wikipedia) for a KDF9 computer (Wikipedia) demonstration through a web page.  Those who know something about the history of programming languages, Algol is a really important language.  Think of it as a latin of programming languages; it’s not used much these days but you can see strong echoes of its design in programming languages of today, such as Java.  (Being more of a software guy than a hardware guy, I felt that more might have been said about the history of languages).

The fact that we can write programs using an old language through a web page is really cool.  Such an approach allows us to sample the past and get a feeling for how things used to work.  David argued (or I have noted down) that we should ideally be able to browse and analyse source text, see software working and sample user experience.  I agree with him.

When it comes to digital preservation, David made the point that we need to read the original media and save it to new media, to keep a byte stream and create software to manipulate and work with these byte stream.  Not only is the software important, but so is the documentation too.  One way to deal with the documentation challenge is to scan existing manuals.  Documentation, however, can be flawed and incomplete.  The best representation of how a machine worked is an emulator.  A well written emulator becomes a description of how hardware operates.

On the subject of emulators and software, I asked myself a thought experiment of ‘what kind of exhibit would I create if I wanted to present something about the history of software?’  Some random thoughts include: the presentation of a command-line interface (echoing the use of a teletype), followed by the use of DEC terminals.  This would then be followed with a hands-on emulation of a Xerox Alto, followed by another emulation of an Apple Lisa (perhaps even an actual machine).  This could then be followed with a really early version of Windows, and then concluding with a touch screen tablet interface (running either iOS or Android).  All these presentations got me thinking!

The Teenage Baby: Chris Burton

I visited the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI website) when I was looking around Manchester before choosing to study Computer Science there as an undergraduate.  Chris’s presentation has underlined that a repeat visit there is now long overdue.

Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), also known as the Manchester Baby (Wiki pedia)was designed by Williams, Kilburn and Tootill and is considered to be the first stored program computer in the world.  Chris gave a description of a programme to reconstruct a replica of this very first machine.

The reconstruction was completed in 1998.  Chris told a fascinating story of the role the machine had played within the museum.  It was a story of movement and construction, of relocation and restarting.  The SSEM has now been in operation for fifteen years and it is important to remember that the original machine only ran for only three.

Chris emphasised the very important role of volunteers.  A volunteer can act as a guide, introducing the different aspects of the machine to visitors.  Chris told us of a story of a volunteer who held aloft a Williams tube and said, ‘this is what a flash drive looks like in 1948... and it only holds a millionth of a gigabyte’, raising curiosity and grounding the past in the technology of the present.

Physical reconstructions not only embody history, but also they represent and echo some of the processes that occurred as a part of the development of a machine.  By creating the past, we can not only develop skills, but we can uncover challenges that the early designers and users faced.

Session: Reconstruction stories

Reconstruction of Konrad Zuse’s Z3 : Horst Zuse

One of the truths in the history of computing is that there were a number of parallel developments happening around the world at the same time.  In Britain there was the work at Bletchley Park, in the United States there was the work at University of Pennsylvania, and in Germany, there was the work of Konrad Zuse.

Horst Zuse, who made a presentation at this conference, is Konrad’s eldest son.  I have known about Zuse’s work for a long time, and heard that his very early machines were destroyed in World War II.  What I didn’t know was the extent of Zuse’s creativity and innovation.  His early machines, the Z1, 2 and 3 used binary floating point numbers.  Z3 can be considered to be one of the first functional programmable computers in the world. One of the differences between the Z3 and other early machines it made use of electromechanical relays.  Z3 apparently used two and a half thousand  of the them, with six hundred being used for the calculating unit.

In 2008 Horst proposed building a new version, or a reconstruction of the Z3.  The new machine could be used to teach the principles of computing (addressing the same issue that the computing devices of today are more difficult to understand).  This reconstruction, however, was to make use of modern telecommunication relays, but this doesn’t discount the challenge of creating such a machine.

Horst talked about the delivery of the relays, the racks in which they were housed, the construction of memory and some of the challenges regarding the input devices (if I remember correctly).  It was initially located in the Technical museum, Berlin, to accompany the Z1 reconstruction that took place between 1987 and 1989.  It’s final destination is likely to be the Konrad-zuse-museum in Hunfield (museum website).  The museum looks like a cool place to visit!

There were two surprises in store for me.  The first was that Zuse created a binary calculating engine whilst independently rediscovering some of the principles that had been previously discovered by George Boole.  Secondly, during the question and answer session, a delegate asked about something called Plankalkül (Wikipedia).  I had never heard of this before.  In essence, Zuse proposed the design of a programming language decades before it became practically possible.

EDSAC Replica Project : David Hartley

Every ‘first’ is qualified.  Zuse’s machine is considered to be the first programmable computer, the Manchester Baby could considered to be the first solid state computer, whereas EDSAC (Wikipedia) is considered to be the first computer that went into regular service with a specific intention of solving problems for its users.  I didn’t know this, but EDSAC is also attributed to have helped three Nobel Prize winners.

The EDSAC reconstruction (project  website) started in 2010, following a conversation with a co-founder of ARM (which designs the processors that are used in smartphones and a whole host of other devices).  The project aims to have a working machine by 2015.  As well as creating a machine, corollary objectives include the desire to create a new archive of related materials and resources and, importantly, to create expertise.  These objects connect nicely to points that Peter Onion made when he was talking about the role of museums; that the very act of rebuilding (or preservation) actively enables past skills, tools and techniques to be rediscovered (and new approaches to be reapplied).

The machine is to be housed at the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.  It’s interesting that there will be two early machines with very different memory technologies: the use of a cathode ray tube, and mercury delay lines.  I understand that there is a connection with the Dollis Hill research centre somewhere along the way, but I don’t (yet) fully understand the details just yet.  This just underlines the point that there’s always lots more reading to do.

For those who are interested, there’s a YouTube clip about the EDSAC replica project.

The Harwell Dekatron Computer :  Kevin Murrell

The Dekatron computer, or WITCH (as it is affectionately known), strikes me as a bit of an odd ball – but a very interesting one!  It was designed for (or as a part of) the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, Oxfordshire.  Kevin told us that it was relay controlled, but it has an electronic arithmetic and logic unit (the bit that does all the calculations).  It also makes use of something called Dekatron valves which serves as its memory.

After spending life at Harwell, it was then moved to Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College (which then later became a university).  Because of its move and role in education, it remains, perhaps the oldest original working computer in the world.

More information about this interesting machine can be found though the following YouTube video: The reboot of the Harwell Dekatron/WITCH computer.  The Computer Conservation Society also have a page about the WITCH (CCS website)

Capturing, restoring and presenting IRIS : Ben Trethowan

IRIS is an abbreviation for Independent Radar Investigation System.  Its role was to collect radar signals to record movements of aircraft.  Should there have ever been a mid-air collision the data collected by IRIS could have been used to provide key evidence for any investigation.  IRIS was said to have been built in the 1970s and ran until 2008 where it was decommissioned, which is an astonishing length of time for a single system.

Ben gave us some information about the technology.  IRIS was based on a DEC PDP11 that had been heavily customised.  Apparently the operating system had been customised too.  When it comes to computer conservation, the march of time can have an impact.  One of the challenges that Ben faced was regarding magnetic tapes.  Over time, oxidisation can occur, which means that the metal layer that is used to store all the data was starting to separate from the plastic layer.  An important part of IRIS was the use of high capacity data cartridges.  These too had started to degrade.  Rubber parts used as a part of the tape drives (or the cartridges) were beginning to perish.

As far as I can remember it, the previous owners of IRIS contacted the computer history museum and asked if they would like it.  Ben then got involved with the project to move the machine to Bletchley Park, working very closely with the donor organisation.  In doing so, he gained a thorough understanding of the role of the machine and the context in which it was used.

What struck me about Ben’s presentation was that he presented what amounted to a ‘good practice’ guide for computer conservation.  Ben’s talk was very clear; it was very interesting to hear all about the ‘other stuff’ that technical curators or ‘machine keepers’ need to consider or take account of.  Whilst a machine is interesting in its own right, understanding the context of use and the sharing of hard won expertise is invaluable in terms understanding how a machine works, its design and its broader organisational and cultural significance.

I’ve made a note (during Ben’s talk) that a good relationship with a donor organisation is important.   It also struck me that good computer conservation isn’t just about dealing with the computer and its software.  A computer forms a part of relationships between groups of people.  As soon as a computer moves from its original context to a new one it can easily become disembodied.  Understanding the human structures as well as the technical structures strikes me as a dimension that museums always need to be mindful of.

Reflections

The conference ended with a short panel session.    I have to confess to being pretty mentally tired at the end of the two days and I didn't take in as much at this point as I would have liked!  This said, the conference was just the right length; a third day would have been too much for me!

This part of the blog is a set of random reflections - nothing too controversial; just a set of thoughts on what struck me the themes were.  I’m sure that different people would have come away with a different set of themes based on their own personal interests.

One of the key themes of the conference was (perhaps unsurprisingly) the role of museums in the history of computing.  There are some fundamental challenges regarding preservation when many aspects of computing (and computer use) are intangible.  There is also a question of which stories to present and how we might present them, and how to we make what is sometimes abstract become visible to try to make it understandable.  One approach, of course, is to use guides or interpreters to try to inspire visitors and help them to understand abstract ideas and principles.  Grounding the role of machines in terms of their application or their wider social context also strikes me as being very important too.

Reconstruction of old computers featured heavily and this was a surprise (but in retrospect, this was more due to my own unfamiliarity of what was happening in this sector than anything else).  Reconstruction is a process where the actions both generates and reaffirms knowledge.  It also strikes me that it is a fabulous way to go about conducting research into some of the early designs and sharing expertise.

Another theme relates to the role of history and its relevance.  A number of speakers say that the history of technology or computing isn’t taught a great deal.  Computer history certainly wasn’t taught on my undergraduate degree and this is a shame.   I was also struck by the assertion that subjects such as computing are viewed as ‘ahistorical’.  This said, you scratch the surface and there’s a whole host of rich, deep and fascinating stories. 

It also was a real delight to inadvertently discover that those that had a connection with the actual history of computing were able to come along to the conference.  What also struck me was a sense of community, especially amongst those who have an involvement with the Computer Conservation Society.

A final work on what I got (personally) got out of the conference.  One of my research interests relates to how ‘place’ played a role in the development of computing, i.e. what happened and where.  I also hope to travel to different places where these innovations have taken place.  This, for me, will be a catalyst for adventure and learning.  In fact, I’ve already taken a couple of journeys and hope to do many more in the coming years.

One thing that I’ve realised is that there is so much history on my doorstep.  During the conference I was chatting to a former colleague who I was amazed to discover had a direct and immediate connection with a computer called LEO (Wikipedia), which was arguably the world’s first commercial computer.  (There was the UNIVAC in America, but I would have to travel quite a way to visit the places where it was created).  I know hardly anything about the LEO.  I feel that a whole new journey of discovery is just about to begin.

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Making the history of computing relevant : Day 1

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Ever since I was a kid I've been interested in the history of computers.  When I was aged ten or eleven I would try to buy an issue of a pretty serious hobbyist magazine using my pocket money every two weeks.  Each issue was a part of a series that would make two really heavy books.  (I couldn't afford to buy very many of the issues, of course... I didn't have enough pocket money!)

In these magazines I remember seeing these old black and white pictures of a machine called ENIAC and reading about very early computers such as the Manchester Baby and the work of Zuse in Berlin, Germany.   These old pictures and articles have always stuck in my mind.  The past, to me, was interesting.  It was, in some way, another world that was there to be be explored.

This is the first of a series of two blog posts of a conference I recently attended at the Science Museum, London, on the subject of the history of computing between 17 and 18 June 2013.  More information about this conference is available through the conference website where you can find copies of the papers and presentations.  Google have also posted a page about the conference on their Google Europe blog.

My attendance at the conference occurred as a result of a random chat with one of the organisers about an old computer company called Elliott which once had its headquarters not too far from where I live.  This sounds like a random conversation - and it certainly was!  But I'm very glad it happened.

What I hope to do with these blog posts is to (briefly) summarise each the presentations (this is something that I do for myself from time to time, to help me to remember what happened).  One disclaimer is that I'll be picking up on the things that I personally found of interest, and I obviously can't do justice to every excellent presentation.

This said, I do hope to provide some links to some of the resources that some of the speakers mentioned, which I hope will be useful to fellow delegates, researchers and students alike.  A final disclaimer is that I'm only going to mention the names of the presenters who gave each talk (even though there were many other contributors) and that there's also a strong possibility that I may well inadvertently misrepresent or misunderstand things.  If I have done this (and you find this blog), then please do correct me by making a comment below.

Opening

The event was opened by Tilly Blythe, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum, Arthur Tatnall, chair of the IFIP (IFIP website) WP9.7 History of Computing group, and Lynette Webb from Google.  Tilly spoke about some of the objectives that relate both to the conference and to the Science Museum.  These include the need to understand the audience and attract their attention, the use of compelling and engaging stories and the importance of objects that can inspire awe and wonder.

Session: The importance of storytelling in museums

Exhibiting the on-line world: Marc Weber

The first formal presentation of the day was by Marc Weber, who did a great job.  One point that I've made a note of is that it is very easy to overlook the fact that technology has a rich and detailed history.  There is always a back story.

Marc introduced us all to the idea of a hierarchy of exhibitability.  I immediately grasped what he meant: some items (or ideas) can be immediately understood and appreciated, whereas others can be difficult to present and grasp.  Exhibits can range from the personal and visual to exhibits that aim to present abstract ideas.  A lot of computing can be, by its nature, pretty abstract.  One way to get over this is to present concepts and ideas using computer screens - but could we do better than presenting information on large glowing rectangles?  How could we exhibit networking, for example?

One approach is to display physical artefacts, such as an original Interface Message Processor (Wikipedia) alongside current devices such as Cisco routers.  The challenge of exposing and exhibiting the internet to visitor 'is like trying to display the wind'.  The question about creating an exhibit about the internet reminds me of how everything (in terms of ideas, as well as devices) is connected.  To understand the history of computing we also need to understand the history of other aspects of technology, such as the history of telecommunications, for instance.

Narrative in the History of Computing: Tilly Blyth

I can remember the first time I visited the Science Museum computing gallery.  There was an actor who played the role of Charles Babbage.  He actor walked up to me and started to enthusiastically talk about his work.  Since I was then a shy twelve year old, I was having none of it - I just wanted to look at the exhibits; I was mildly traumatised by the actor's enthusiasm and he left demoralised.  Not quite an indelible scar, but an interesting memory that reflects one really interest approach that museums can take to make their collections come alive.

Tilly spoke (amongst lots of other things) about different approaches to exhibitions.   One of the problems with the chronological approach, presenting a gradual (and natural) progression from the past to the present, is that it suggests a degree of inevitability, or technological determinism.  A challenge with this approach is that this doesn't take into account the wider social issues and circumstances that brought about technological innovation and development.  Another point is that innovation happens in fits and starts, and there are many dead ends.  It's also the case that people remember stories, and one way to help with this is that the stories of people are important.

Tilly also spoke about the current exhibition about Alan Turing that celebrates his contributions and life, whilst also exhibiting a number of related artefacts.  This story telling or biographical approach strikes me as one that is understandable and compelling.

I didn't know about this, but there is going to be a new Information Age gallery.  (You can learn more about this through Tilly's blog). The gallery will expose, examine and celebrate, subjects through the eyes of those that were affected.  It will cover key communication technologies such as cable, broadcast, satellite, web and cell (radio) technology.  According to my roughly scribbled notes, it will feature something about the first communications cable that went across the Atlantic and will feature oral histories and video presentations.

At the centre of the exhibition will be something called the Rugby Tuning coil which was once used for transmission of very low frequency signals to submarines.  Such an object can connect to important subjects such as information theory and transmission.  After seeing a photograph of the coil I can assert that it is a striking and arresting object.  It appears to be one of those artefacts that is beautiful in not only its physical construction, but also in the sense that its design embodies the principles of technology that it utilities.

I've made a note that Tilly mentioned that there will be a series of stories.  There will be stories about the first information machines, such as Tommy Flowers and his role developing the Collosus, and the development of the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) which is considered to be the first commercial computer in the world.    I understand that there will be something about the birth of computer networks.  A third story relates to the global information space, and a fourth is about computers for users (and being a tutor on a human-computer interaction module, this is a subject close to my heart).

Tilly's talk emphasised that narratives can connect places, ideas and artefacts, through people.  When it comes to exhibitions and artefacts, a key objective is to creating resonance and wonder.  I, for one, am looking forward to visiting the new gallery when it is opened.

Making history relevant through education and experience: Arthur Tatnall

I seem to remember that Arthur began with some questions: 'why should we be interested?  What questions comes to mind when se see an old mainframe? What can we do to make artefacts relevant and important?  What difference did it make to people's lives at the time?'  These are all great questions.

Linking back to an earlier presentation, there are (of course), a number of different streams that are important, such as mathematics, technologies for automation and control, technologies for information processing, communication technologies.  Interestingly,  Arthur mentioned something called Actor-network theory (Wikipedia).  This was a theory that I hadn't heard of before, and having an interest in the social sciences, this is something that I'll be certainly taking the time to look at.  In essence, the theory seems to be about the interaction between people and things.

Arthur also introduces some really important issues, such as, how do we preserve software?  (This is a question which crops up a number of different times throughout this conference).  There is, of course, the question of how we might convey the importance and relevance of software to visitors.  One approach might be to make use of guides to make the exhibits come alive (as long as they don't scare away any of the visitors, of course!)

Session: Key collections and the future plans

Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum: Jochen Viehoff

I never knew this, but apparently the Heinz Nixdorf computer museum is one of the largest of its kind in the world.  We were told that the museum has a total of one and a half thousand objects.  These range from very early mechanical calculating machines, such as those designed by Pascal and Liebnitz and also include objects that relate to the early history of telecommunications and telegraphy, such as an early machine by Samuel Morse.

Exhibits include a reconstruction of a Hollerith machine (Wikipedia) (which is an important part of the story of the IBM computer company) and different mechanical constructions and representations of the theoretically important Turing machine (Wikipedia).

By the end of the presentation I felt that this was one museum that I would certainly like to visit.  The challenge (as emphasised by Jochen) is that it might be quite difficult to find as we were told that the town of Paderborn, where the museum is situated, is not easy to get to.  (I was later told that he was exaggerating!)

Computers' Collection at the Polytechnic Museum: Marina Smolevitskaya

I never knew that there were so many museums that were collecting computing related artefacts!  During one of the breaks, I later found out that there was a completely new computer museum opening in Cambridge (I look forward to learning more).  Marina, however, briefly talked about her work at the Polytechnical Museum (Wikipedia), Moscow, Russia.  The computing collection was founded in the 1960s and now consists of 800 objects and 2000 documents.

Session: Expanding the audience for computing history

The Case of Computing: Gauthier van den Hove

Students who learn mathematics and computing don't (it was stated) tend to learn much history.  This said, there are some exceptions - there are courses in the history of mathematics, and there are some lecturers (some of them who came to this conference) who teach the history of computing.

Gauthier drew our attention to the differences between historical disciplines, such as the humanities (where history plays an important and central role), and ahistorical disciplines, which could be considered as more technical subjects.  I'm not so sure whether things are as clear cut as this, but I understand the point that is being made.  I've also noted down that Gauthier says that one of the dangers is anachronism.  For example, it is very easy to view the past through the glasses or spectacles of the present; we can very readily take for granted what we know.  (This connects to the earlier points about technological determinism and that it is difficult to see the rich histories underpinning the technologies that we use on a day to day basis).

There are two really nice quotes that I've made a note of.  These are:  'one of the main tasks of a historian is to identify the main facts to help us to remember the past' and, 'the past is a source of inspiration for the present'.   Another thought regarding the role of a historian is that their role is about identifying stories too, and that everyone is situated within a unique historical context.  When we consider the past, we need to consider the present too (and the relationship that we have with it).

The Mundaneum: Delphine Jenart

Delphine Jenart introduced something that I had never heard of before: the Mundaneum (Wikipedia).    In some ways, the Mundaneum, which is strongly connected to the subject of documentation science, can be associated with more recent ideas, such as Vannevar Bush's famous article As we may think (Wikipedia).

The take away points that I took from Delphine's presentation was the importance of press coverage and exposure, which connects with the thought that there are many different ways to connect with a wider audience and emphasise relevance.  More information about this can be uncovered by visiting the Mundaneum website.

Resurrecting Ukraine's computing heritage: Lynette Webb and Marina Tarasova

I was about half way through my doctoral research in the late 1990s when I stumbled across a paper in the Communications of ACM (perhaps the most prestigious computing journal there is) that had absolutely nothing at all to do with my research.  It was a paper that really grabbed my attention.  It was all about the design and development of computers in the Soviet era.

One of the challenges that I faced as a research student was that there were so many different things that I found interesting.  I spent a day or so reading and re-reading the paper before deciding that I had better put this to one side and get on with my main research before I got carried away - but this reminded me of my long-running interest in the old and the historical.  The paper presented a perspective and a social history that was very different to the one that I had read about in the computer magazines that I used to buy as a school kid.  I remembered all these things during Lynette and Marina's presentation.

Lynette talked about the connection with Google, and how this led to interviews and newspaper articles.  Some important points (in terms of exposing a computing related subject to the media) included the use of stories, anecdotes, anniversaries, photos and videos - all help to create a compelling and interesting picture.  Also, for those who are interested, there's a website entitled History of Computing in Ukraine. It's pretty interactive and contains some cracking pictures.

Session: Spotlight on research projects

The Konrad Zuse internet archive project: Christian Burchard

Christian Burchard introduced the Konrad Zuse internet archive project.  Not only did Christian talk about the archive (and how researchers might use to explore and study documents), but he also told us about a number of other resources exhibits and resources.   He also mentioned the reconstruction of the Z1 machine and associated on-line resources, such as a way to view the different components of the machine, and a demonstration of how it works.

As an aside, I understand that the Science Museum is hoping to make their archive of Babbage documents available to anyone who might be interested.

The Monads project: Chris Avram

Innovation and developments in early computing occurred at many different places at the same time.  Universities played a significant role in shaping and developing early digital hardware and software.  It is, perhaps, little surprise that universities have become unexpected custodians of machine of the past.

Chris Avram spoke of the preservation of computing at Monash University,Australia, and treated us to a number of interesting anecdotes regarding the use of punched cards and paper clips.  He also introduced us to the Monads computer, which was developed in collaboration with partners in Germany.  This went some way to reminding me that each institution has its own technical history which needs to be cared for.

Session: Integrating history with computer science education

Using old computers for teaching computer science: Giocanni Cignoni

There is a very compelling argument that some old things are simpler and are therefore easier to understand.  Old computers and technology opens up a range of different opportunities when it comes to teaching.  Instead of being impossibly miniaturised, circuits that do essential things are exposed, allowing ideas and principles to be potentially more readily understood.

Giocanni told us about early Italian computers.  Just as each university has its own history, there is also a wider history that connects with and related to individual countries (and groups of countries).  Another aspect to computing education is that simulations of early systems can expose the detail about how they could be operated.  Giocanni told us about the HMR project (pdf copy of presentation).  A simulator could be used to emphasise the difficulties, but also enable the fundamentals and the inherent complexity of devices to become more tangible.

Is there a future in the Past: Chris Monk

Chris is learning co-ordinator at the national museum of computing at Bletchley Park, which isn't too far from the Open University campus.  Visitors from schools are very welcome to visit the museum.  Not only can visitors be fascinated by the various galleries and exhibits, but Chris also runs 'learning to program' or coding sessions on a cluster of BBC Model B (Wikipedia) computers.  I visited this learning space a couple of years ago, and it reminded me of a couple of classrooms in my old school.

Chris commented that some learners can become very enthusiastic about the programming activities and even go as far ask asking where they might be able to buy one of these old computers.  In such cases, students are directed to more modern resources, such as emulators.  A quick internet search (I couldn't resist...) reveals a wealth of resources.

The museum has seen an increase in visitor numbers in recent years.  An interesting point to note is that there is an apparent (and significant) gender imbalance, with boys outnumbering girls to a ratio of 30:1.  During Chris's talk, I've also made a note of a site (or a project) called Young Rewired State that aims to inspire the next generation of coders and developers.

In some respects, old machines or devices reflect the times in which they were built and used.  Chris asked the interesting question, which is: 'will the word computer still exist in ten years?', when devices are disappearing into our clothes and into our environment.

Apparently, computing pioneer Grace Hopper once said, 'computing without a past is just a subject, not  a science'.  A thought (or point) emerging from this session is that it is incredibly easy to get thoroughly absorbed into the here and now.

Bringing relevance to computing courses through history: John Impagliazzo

I've made the following notes during John's talk: history broadens outlook, it helps us to look beyond the machine and can help us to think critically.  History helps to make the discipline mature, yet it's only done on the fringe.  In which faculty should a historian of computing or technology sit?  Should it sit within the history or the computing department?

John also mentions the importance of corporate history.  Whilst a lot of the very early developments took place within universities (or organisations that are closely connected to universities in one way or another), more recent developments have obviously and undeniably taken place in the industrial sector.  An example of this might be the history of Control Data Corporation (Wikipedia).  (As a brief aside, John also mentioned the Charles Babbage Institute, which is a centre for the history of information technology at the University of Minnesota).

I've also made the note of the following question:  'are teachers of technology conversant with the history of the technology that they teach?'  His point is that we're much more able to remember a story than a logical argument (or a bunch of abstract ideas).  Knowing a bit of history is good for the teachers, which means that it's good for our students too.

Adapting, rather than re-inventing the wheel: Martha Crosby

The final presentation of the day was by Martha Crosby, who had travelled to the conference from the University of Hawaii, a university that has its own unique place in the history of computing and digital communications.  If you're interested in this aspect of computing history, the detail about ALOHANet (Wikipedia) is pretty interesting - it was something that kept me occupied as an undergrad.

Martha took us on a very quick tour of various milestones, whilst making the point that history adds to your toolbox in terms.  She touched on history of IBM, the development of the Harvard Mark 1, the ENIAC computer, the work by Zuse, and the Altair (one of the first personal computers).  Interestingly, Martha also touched upon the subject of programming languages, which has its own history that hasn't been discussed as much.

I've taken a note of a great quotation, which goes: 'the history of computing is the history of human kind's creativity and ingenuity which is why we should hold onto it forever' which I believe might have been attributed to Jason Scott (Blog).    (Searching the source of this quote led me to this very interesting software archive (Archive.org) - which also seems to be a repository of software).

A final point is that ideas in computing are very often adaptations of ideas that already exist.  Understanding the trajectory of their development and combination is one way to understand the present.

Evening event: Alan Turing's Life and Legacy

By the end of first day, my head was beginning to ache, big time.  It was a full on day, which took everyone to the pre-history of computing and back.  We even (briefly) went back as far as 100 BC, before returning (close) to the present day to the origins of the personal computer and the internet.

After an hours break, we found ourselves exploring a gallery in the Science Museum about the life of Alan Turing.  There were exhibits that I had never seen before, such as the ACE Computer (Wikipedia). 

 

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NESTA Crucible Alumni - Google UK

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A couple of years ago I managed to find myself involved with something called NESTA Crucible (NESTA website).  Amongst other things, Crucible was a programme that was all about getting people from different disciplines together and offering some useful and practical guidance to researchers and academics.  A couple of years after the final Crucible event, NESTA funded a day which was broadly entitled 'Crucible Alumni' to enable past participants to reflect on what had happened after the programme came to an end.

It was both a fun and useful day, and I'm summarising bits of it as a blog for a couple of reasons.  The first to remember what happened (!), the second for the other people who were able to come along and third, to share something about the useful points that were discussed with a wider audience (which seems appropriate, given that engagement with different people was one of the themes of the day).

Introductions and Presentations

The event was hosted at Google's London offices.  I was interested to discover that I had been to the area in which the offices were situated, but I had no idea that this was where Google's offices were.  The day began with a brief introduction by a Googler, followed by a further brief talk by NESTA's chief exec.  We were soon into the first key part of the day where former members of the programme were able to give some short presentations using the Pecha Kucha (Wikipedia) format.

I had never witnessed the use of this technique before but, in essence, presenters were asked to give talks that contained 20 PowerPoint slides which changed every 20 seconds - a tough format, and one that forces presenters to avoid waffle!

The notes I've made accompanying the first presentations are: 'linguistic map of Glasgow', 'lego' and 'genome sequencing'.  The next presentation described some science outreach activities to schools.  The words I've used in relation to this presentation were 'chromosome carnival', 'Edinburgh festival' and 'radio programme'.  If anyone is interested in learning more, do let me know so I can put you in contact with the presenter.

The next presentation was by a Crucible contemporary called Howard Falcon-Long, who is an expert in fossil plants.  Howard talked about getting involved with some media fellowships, and has had an opportunity to write for the BBC - Howard certainly has managed to do a lot since our time on the programme. Other phrases that I've noted from other presenters include 'research in neurodisability', 'lab automation', 'life at high altitudes' and 'viruses'.  The words 'fun', 'science' and 'outreach' were also found together on the same page of my notebook. 

Collaboration and adventures in research

There were two formal(ish) presentations during the day, followed by a short group activity.  The first presentation was by Professor Kate Jones (ZSI website) from the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research, UCL.  Kate holds a chair in Ecology and Biodiversity and spoke about two things: Bats and Citizen Science.

I remember seeing quite a few bats when I lived in my previous house in Sussex; they would swoop down by the side of the house, almost doing circuits of my garden before they mysteriously disappeared as quickly as they came.  Having noticed them flying around, and having been told that there are so many different types of bats out there, how might we be able to understand how many they are and, importantly, how the bat population is getting along?  Determining change requires us to take measurements, but how on earth can we measure the how many bats there are?!

Kate introduces us to something called Citizen Science (Wikipedia).  This is where an interested member of the public can play a small but important part of a wider research endeavour.  The advantages are that participants can make a contribution, it permits the exposure of different issues to a wider population and also can play an important role in informing members of the public about science.  Plus, it can be pretty fun too.

One way to count bats (I have to admit, I had never ever thought to ask this question before!) is to record the noises that they make.  Different bats make different noises.  Easy, right?  Well, you've got to capture the noises, which means driving around at certain times of the day using special recording devices.  When you've got the noises, there's then the problem of categorising or classifying the noises.  There are a few bits of technology that are being used: some kind of vehicle, a recording gadget, and GPS, a clock, a computer - and you can find quite a few in your mobile phone.

Kate introduced us to a couple of websites, iBats which is a programme about collecting bat sounds and calls from the environment, and Bat Detective which allows members of the public to start to classify recordings, thus providing useful data for the 'bat scientists'.

This kind of approach to science, the crowd sourcing of either data or analysis isn't new, but the availability of powerful computers in the form of your mobile telephone and increased availability of fast internet is facilitating the availability of new types of experiment.  One of the first citizen science projects (as far as I'm aware) is called Galaxy Zoo.  After a period of training, you are able to classify different types of galaxy that, perhaps, no one has ever studied properly before.

Whilst Galaxy Zoo can be used on a desktop PC, I also remember having heard of something called Mappiness.  This is a mobile phone application which asks you to respond to how happy you are at a particular point in time (I remember this featuring in a TED Talk I saw not so long ago, but I can't find its link).

Kate also mentioned another website called Zooniverse.  This site collates different crowd sourcing or citizen science projects together in one place.  I'm certainly struck by the breadth and diversity of the different projects. There is also, of course, an Open University biodiversity observatory project called iSpot, which has over eighteen thousand registered users.

Towards the end of last year there was a lot of press coverage about ash dieback (Wikipedia) and increased awareness of the extent to which this fungal infection is attacking ash trees in Great Britain.  The increased awareness of this problem quickly led to the development of an app called Ashtag (along with other similar projects).  Kate mentioned a website called Naturelocator which links to other projects.

Kate mentioned a project that I had heard of about six months ago through a geek news site called Slashdot.  This was a crowd sourced radiation map.  In the wake of the Japanese Tsunami and resulting nuclear accident, software developers and hardware designers created personal low-cost Geiger counters.  Citizens could were then able to take their own geo-tagged radioactivity readings that were in competition with the official measurements produced by the authorities.

An interesting (and rather obvious) thought that was inspired by Kate's presentation is that science can lead to the creation of technology which, in turn, can then lead to further science.  Technologies such as the mobile phone can (in part) democratise science (and the taking of measurements), but there is also the challenge of ensuring the quality, integrity and reliability of results.  This said (taking an open source software analogy) just as many eyes looking at the same software can potentially lead to fewer programming bugs, many data collection points can lead to more accurate and comprehensive results. All in all, a very thought provoking talk.

Soapbox Science

Seirian Sumner (Bristol University) is a scientist who is interested in bees, wasps and ants (if my notes serve me well).  Seirian also has an interest in popular science writing and sharing her enthusiasm for science with the general public.

Seirian introduced us to the idea of 'soapbox science' and presented us with a challenge - we were asked to imagine that we were at speaker's corner, Hyde Pare.  Let's say we were given a soapbox to stand on - what would you say (about science) that would draw listeners to you?  We were then asked, 'is anyone going to volunteer?'  Within minutes, around six scientists were balancing on tables trying to entice us bystanders (I didn't volunteer) to listen to what they had to say about their subject.  It was a compelling demonstration.  Any Googlers who were passing by must have wondered what was happening, and it was a miracle that the police were not called given how much shouting and impassioned speaking was going on!

Over a course of about an hour or so, we were introduced to Soapbox Science and heard what Seirian and her colleagues had been doing.  It began with a summary of a pilot, followed by a summary of an event (ZSL) that took place on the London Southbank in July 2012.

So, why do all this?  A number of reasons were put forward.  Seirian opened her presentation with what, to me, was perhaps one of the most compelling arguments.  Since scientists are primarily funded through government research grants and teach at publically funded universities, there is the argument that scientists should be giving something back and Soapbox Science is one of many ways to do this.  Other reasons includes enjoyment, understanding and making connection between science and art, public dissemination of work and raising awareness of research and subjects, inspiring others and gaining new ideas.

Towards the end of the day there was quite a debate about gender and science, and an open question of, 'if people leave science, where do they go to?'  Another thought is that although women in science was a very prominent and important theme in Seirian's work, diversity in its broadest sense (gender, socio-economic background, ethnicity and disability) is equally important.

This final presentation of the day made me reflect on whether there might be other ways to inspire people.  I started to wonder whether there was any mileage of trying to connect stand-up comedy and computer science.  I haven't got anywhere with this idea yet; it's something I'm continuing to mull over (!)

Reflections

There are two key things that I gained from this day and both of them are loosely connected to each other.  The first relates to our own discipline.  We can sometimes get so locked into our own subject and trying to solve our own little problems, whether it is creating something or taking part in a larger debate, that we can easily become entrenched in our own way of thinking about things.  Speaking to other people outside our own discipline, whatever those disciplines may be, can be very refreshing.  We're exposed to different scientific (or artistic) language, different types problems and different types of methods.  In doing so we may then become more critical of our own way of solving problems.  There are days when we become so familiar with our own subjects that they don't seem as exciting as the work that other people are carrying out.  When we begin to talk to people outside our discipline we actually realise (again) that the subjects that we find interesting are, actually, very cool.

The other point is that how much more we could each be doing.  Research, teaching and administration represent very important, necessary and all-consuming aspects of an academic role.  So much so, it is easier to forget, as Seirian pointed out, that perhaps we need to consider our role in terms of a wider responsibility too.  Science and research is very much carried out and facilitated by universities and research institutions.  I guess an important thought is that sharing can represent an opportunity for everyone who becomes involved.

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