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Bletchley Park archive course

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At end of January, I took a day off my usual duties and went to an event called the ‘Bletchley Park archive course’.  I heard about the course through the Bletchley Park emailing list.  As soon as I received the message telling me about it I contacted the organisers straight away, but unfortunately, I was already too late: there were no longer any spaces on the first event.  Thanks to a kind hearted volunteer, I was told about the follow up event.

This blog post is likely to be a number of blog posts about Bletchley Park, a place that is significant not only in terms of Second World War intelligence gathering and analysis, but is also significant in the history of computing.   It’s a place I’ve been to a couple of times, but this visit had a definite purpose; to learn more about their archives and what they might be able to tell a very casual historian of technology, like myself.

I awoke at about half six in the morning, which is the usual time when I have to travel to Milton Keynes and found my way to my local train station.  The weather was shocking, as it was for the whole of January.  I was wearing sturdy boots and had donned a raincoat, as instructed by the course organisers.  Two trains later, I was at Euston Station, ready to take the relatively short journey north towards Milton Keynes, and then onto the small town of Bletchley, just one stop away.

Three quarters of an hour later, after walking through driving rain and passing what appeared to be a busy building site, I had found the room where the ‘adult education’ course was to take place.

Introduction and History

The day was hosted by Bletchley Park volunteer, Susan Slater.  Susan began by taking about the history of the site that was to ultimately become a pivotal centre for wartime intelligence.  Originally belonging to a financier, the Bletchley Park manor house and adjoining lands were put up for auction in 1937. 

Bletchley was a good location; it was pretty incongruous.  It was also served by two railway lines.  One line that went to London and another that went from East to West, connecting the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  Not only was it served well in terms of transport, the railway also offers other kinds of links too – it was possible to connect to telecommunication links that I understand ran next to the track.  Importantly, it was situated outside of London (and away from the never ending trials of the blitz).

Susan presented an old map and asked us what we thought it was.  It turned out to be a map of the telegraph system during the time of the British Empire; red wires criss-crossed the globe.  The telegraph system can be roughly considered to be a ‘store and forward’ system.  Since it was impossible (due to distances involved) to send a message from England to, say, Australia, directly, messages (sent in morse code) were sent via a number of intermediate stations (or hubs). 

Susan made the point that whoever ran the telecommunication hubs were also to read all the messages that were transferred through it.  If you want your communications to be kept secret, the thing to do is to encode them in some way.  Interestingly, Susan also referred to Edward II, where there was a decree in around 1324 (if I understand this correctly!) that stated ‘all letters coming from or going to parts overseas [could] be ceased’.  Clearly, the contemporary debates about the interception of communications have very deep historical roots.

We were introduced to some key terms.  A code is a representation of letters and words by other letters and words.  A cypher is how letters are replaced with other letters.  I’ve also noted that if that if something is formulaic (or predicable), then it can become breakable (which is why you want to hide artefacts of language - certain characters in a language are statistically more frequent than others, for example).  The most secure way to encode a message is to use what a one-time pad (Wikipedia).  This is an encoding mechanism that is used only once and then thrown away.

An Engima machine (Wikipedia), which sat at the front of the classroom, was an electro-mechanical implementation of an encoding mechanism.  Susan outlined its design to us: it had a keyboard like a typewriter, plug boards (to replace one letter with another), four or five rotors that had the same number of positions as there were characters (which moved every time you pressed a key), and wiring within the rotors that changed the ‘letters’ even further. 

Second session: how it all worked

After a swift break, we dived straight into the second session, where we were split into two teams.  One team had to encrypt a message (using the Enigma machine), and the second team had to use the same machine to decrypt the same message (things were made easier since the ‘decrypting side’ knew what all the machine settings were).   I think my contribution was to either press a letter ‘F’ or a letter ‘Q’ – I forget!  Rotors turned and lights lit up.  The seventy-something year old machine still did its stuff.

What follows is are some rough notes from my notebook (made quickly during the class).  We were told that different parts of the German military used different code books (and also the Naval enigma machine was different to other enigma machines).  Each code book lasted for around 6 weeks.  The code book contained information such as the day, rotor position, starting point of the rotor and plug board settings; everything you needed to make understandable messages totally incomprehensible.

The challenge was, of course, to uncover what the settings of an Engima machine were (so messages could be decrypted).  A machine called the Bombe (Wikipedia) was invented to help with the process of figuring what the settings might be.  When the settings were (potentially) uncovered, these were tested by entering them into a machine called the Typex (which was, in essence, a version of an Enigma machine) along with the original message, to see if plain text (an unencrypted message) appeared.

The Enigma wasn’t the only machine that was used to encrypt (and decrypt) messages. Enigma (as far as I understand) was used for tactical communications.  Higher level strategic communications used in the German high command were transmitted using the Lorenz cypher.  This more complicated machine contained a paper tape reader which allowed the automatic transmission of messages, dispensing with the need for a morse code operator.

In terms of the scale of the operation at Bletchley Park, we were told that three thousand Engima messages ever day were being decoded, and forty Lorenz messages.  To help with this, there were 210 Bombe machines to help with the Enigma codes, and a machine that is sometimes described as ‘the world’s first electronic computer’, the Colossus machine.  At its peak, there were apparently ten thousand workers (a quarter of whom were women), running three shifts. 

Bombe Demo

After a short break, we were gently ushered downstairs to one of the museum exhibits; a reconstruction of a Bombe machine.  This was an electro-mechanical device that ‘sped up’ the process of discovering Enigma machine settings.  Two operators described how it worked and then turned it on.  It emitted a low whirring and clicking noise as it mechanically went through hundreds of combinations.

As the Bombe was running, I had a thought.  I wondered how you might go about writing a computer program, or a simulation to do pretty much the same thing.  The machine operators talked about the use of something called a ‘code map’, which helped them to find the route towards the settings.  I imagined an application or interactive smartphone or tablet app that allowed you to play with your own version of a Bombe, to get a feel for how it would work...  There could even be virtual Enigma machine that you could play with; you could create a digital playground for budding cryptographers.

Of course, there’s no such thing as an original thought: a Bombe simulator has already been written by the late Tony Sale (who reconstructed the Colossus machine), and a quick internet search revealed a bunch of Engima machine simulators.  One burning question is how might we potentially make the best use of these tools and resources?

Archive Talk

The next part of the day was all about the archive; the real reason I signed up for this event.  I have to confess that I didn’t really know what to expect and this sense of uncertainty was compounded by having a general interest rather than having a very specific research question in mind.

The archive is run by the Bletchley Park Trust.  GCHQ, the Government Communication Headquarters, is the custodian for the records that have come from Bletchley Park.  I understand that GCHQ is going to use Bletchley Park is used as its ‘reading room’, having leant around one hundred and twenty thousand documents for a period of fifty years.

By way of a very general introduction, a number of samples from the archive were dotted around our training room.  These ranged from Japanese language training aids (and a hand-written Japanese-English dictionary), forms used to help with the decryption of transmissions, through to samples of transmissions that were captured during the D-Day landings.

Apparently, there’s a big project to digitise the archive.  There is a multi-stage process that is under way.  The first stage is to have the artefacts professionally photographed.  This is followed by (I believe) storing the documents in some kind of on-line repository.  Volunteers may then be actively needed to help create metadata (or descriptions) of each repository item, to enable them to be found by researchers.

Tour

The final part of the day was a tour.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been on a couple of Bletchley Park tours, but this was unlike any of the earlier tours I had been on before.  We were all given hard hats and told to don high visibility jackets.  We were then ushered into the driving rain.

After a couple of minutes of trudging, we arrived at a building that I had first seen when I entered the site.  The building (which I understand was known as ‘hut 3’) was to become a new visitor’s centre.  From what I remember, the building used to be one of the largest punched card archives in Europe, known as Deb’s delight (for a reason that completely escapes me).    It was apparently used to cross-reference stuff (and I’m writing in terrible generalisations here, since I really don’t know very much!) 

Inside, there was no real lighting and dust from work on the floors hung in the air.  There was a strong odour of glue or paint.  Stuff was clearly happening.  Internal walls had been stripped away to give way to reveal a large open plan area which would become an ideal exhibition space.  Rather than being a wooden prefabricated ‘hut’, we were walking through a substantial brick building. 

Minutes later, we were directed towards two other huts that were undergoing restoration.  These were the wooden ones.  It was obvious that these buildings had lacked any kind of care and attention for many years, and workmen were busy securing the internal structure.  Avoiding lights and squeezing past tools, we snaked through a series of claustrophobic corridors, passing through what used to be the Army Intelligence block and then onto the Navy Intelligence block.  These were the rooms in which real secrets became clear.   Damp hung in the air, and mould could be seen creeping up some of the old walls.  There was clearly a lot of work that needed to be done.

Final thoughts

Every time I visit Bletchley Park, I learn something new.  This time, I became more aware of what happened in the different buildings, and I certainly learnt more about the future plans for the archive.  Through the talks that took place at the start of the day, I also learnt of a place called the Telegraph museum (museum website), which can be found at Porth Curno, Cornwall.   When walking through the various corridors to the education room, I remember a large poster that suggested that all communication links come to Bletchley Park, and that Bletchley is the centre of everything.

When it comes to a history of computing, it’s impossible to separate out the history of the computer and the history of telecommunications.  In Bletchley Park, communications and computing are fundamentally intertwined.  There’s another aspect, which is computing (and computing power) has led to the obvious development of new forms of communication.  Before I go any further forward in time (from, say, 1940 onwards), there’s a journey that I have to make back in time, and that is to go on a diversion to discover more about telecommunications, and a good place to start is by learning more about the history of the telegraph system.

I’ll be back another day (ideally when it’s not raining), to pay another call to Bletchley Park, and will also drop into to The National Museum of Computing, which occupies the same site.

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Gresham College: A history of computing in three parts

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Nov 2013, 17:03

After a week and a half of continual exam and assignment marking, I was relieved to finally be able to turn my attention to other matters (and get out of my house).  I had an idle question: I wondered whether there were any professors or lecturers in London who shared an interest in the history of computing or technology.  Rather than trawling through university web pages (which was the first idea that crossed my mind), I decided to ask the internet, searching for the words, ‘history computing lecturer London’.

One name was clearly at the top of the list, but it was something else a bit lower down the search result that immediately attracted my attention.  It was a series of lectures entitled, ‘a history of computing in three parts’.  My first reactions were, ‘it’s probably too late’ and, ‘you’ve probably got to pay a lot of money to go along to this gig’.  All this computer history stuff that I’m interested in has to be folded into my day job which means that that it’s easier to justify time but a whole lot harder to justify expenses.

After reading the paragraph that described the event, I cast my eye back to the heading.  I realised that the date of the lecture was TODAY!  The very same day I had done my Google search, Thursday 31 October!  After a few more clicks I discovered that the event was also FREE!  Behold, it was a miracle!  I looked at my calendar; the lecture started at four in the afternoon and provided that I managed to sort out some admin stuff and have a meeting with a colleague, I would probably have enough time.

The only fly in the ointment was that it was all booked up; there were no tickets remaining.  Who knew that the history of computers was such a popular subject?  No matter.  I was looking reasonably smart – I would try to talk my way in.

Lecture 1: Pictures of computers

After a few false starts I managed to find my way to a place called Gresham College (website); navigating my way out of Chancery Lane tube proved to be quite tricky. It is only in retrospect that I realised that this was one of those places in London that I really ought to have known about.  I just know that people who I speak to about this event will chuckle, slap their thigh and say, ‘oh yes, Gresham College...’ and then will look at me as if I’m some kind of idiot if I said that I had visited there ‘by accident’.

I strode purposefully down a long alleyway and was confronted by a smartly dressed gentleman who obviously had an important role to play.  I began my attack: ‘I’m, erm, here for the lecture…’, and was swiftly gestured towards a flight of stairs without a word.   I felt deflated!  I was expecting to fight my way into the lecture!  I soon found myself in an anti-chamber filled with men (and women) in anoraks looking at a projector screen and noisily settled down to what was the first lecture by Martin Campbell-Kelly.

I joined the lecture at the point where people were being shown coloured photos of office equipment and pictures of steel filing cabinets.  The context was that computers are machines that allow us to process ever increasing amounts of data (and there’s a whole history of manual record keeping that we can easily overlook).  We were then told something about the history of the Rand Corporation followed by parts of the history of the computer company IBM.

On the subject of IBM, he mentioned someone called Eliot Noyes (Wikipedia).  Noyes was for IBM as Jonathan Ive (Wikipedia) is for Apple (if you’re into industrial design).  Martin mentioned that mainframe computers had a particular look; for a time there was a particular ‘design zeitgeist’.  I’ve made notes that Noyes used to look over catalogues from the Italian company Olivetti, and not only designed computers, but entire rooms.  We were shown photographs of various mock-ups. 

The creation of physical prototypes reminded me of some themes that are mentioned in a couple of design modules, either Design Essentials or Design for Engineers.  Martin also made reference to designer Norman Bel Geddes (Wikipedia).  He also showed us a whole host of other pictures of big machines, notably the ICL 2900 (Wikipedia) used in the Bankers’ Automated Clearing System (BACS).  (I have to confess being dragged into the depth of the Wikipedia page about that particular ICL computer.  Should I confess to such level of geekiness?  Probably not!)

Martin’s talk wasn’t really what I had expected but I found it pretty interesting (and it was a shame I missed the first quarter of it).  I was surprised by the detail that he provided about manual filing systems but I was also encouraged by the inclusion of information about designers.  The visual and industrial design aspect is an important part of computing history too.  Thinking back, one of my first computers had a very different aesthetic to the machines that I use today.  Function and fashion, combined with the wider perception of devices and machines are perspectives that are inexplicably linked.

After the lecture, it later dawned on me that I’ve actually read one of Martin’s books, ‘Computer: a history of the information machine’ which he co-authored with William Aspray.  It’s a pretty good read.  It covers a range of different strands; the pre-history, early electronic machines (such as the UNIVAC, which he touched on in his talk), before moving onto the emergence of the internet and software.  It’s tough to do everything but he has a good old go at it.

Lecture 2: Turing and his work

The second lecture of the day was by Professor Jonathan Bowen (website).  Jonathan talked about the life and work of Alan Turing (Wikipedia) and mentioned Alan Hodges’s scholarly biography, ‘the enigma of intelligence’. 

Jonathan spoke about three key areas of Turing’s work: his work that relates to the fundamentals of computer science, philosophical work relating to artificial intelligence and his later work on morphogenesis (which now has strong connections to the field of bioinformatics).  He mentioned his birth place, spoke about his PhD research which took place at Princeton University (with Alonzo Church being his doctoral supervisor), and also spoke about his work at Bletchley Park.  Other aspects of his life were touched on, such as his work in the National Physical Laboratory (NLP) in Teddington and his movement to the University of Manchester.  During his time in the NPL, he worked on the design of a computer which then became the Pilot Ace (Wikipedia).  When he was at Manchester, he was familiar with the Manchester Mark I computer (the world’s first stored program computer, and don’t let any American tell you otherwise).

What I liked about Jonathan’s talk was its breadth.  He covered many different aspects of Turing life in a very short space of time.  He also spoke of the ambiguity regarding his death, echoing what Hodges had written in his biography of Turing

At the end of his talk, we were directed to a set of web links that might be of interest to some.  Last year was the centenary of Turing’s birth, and there is a commemorative website that contains a whole host of different resources to celebrate this.  There is also a site that is maintained by his biographer, Alan Hodges (turing.org.uk).  Interestingly, we were also directed to an on-line archive of documents which can be accessed by computer scientists, historians or anyone else who might be interested.

Lecture 3: The grand narrative of the history of computing

The headline act of the night was Doron Swade.  I know of Doron’s work from the Science Museum where he headed up a project to construct a working version of Charles Babbage’s design for his Difference Engine number 2.  Babbage (for those who don’t know of him) is a Victorian inventor and raconteur whose lifelong quest was to build and design mechanical calculating machines.  During his life, he had a battle with his engineer, had the challenge of securing money for his ideas, travelled around Italy and hosted some famous parties (and did a whole lot more).

The title of Doran’s lecture was an intriguing and demanding one.  Could there really be a grand narrative about the history of computing?  If so, what elements or ingredients might it contain?  Doron told us that the history of computing is an emerging field and then posed a similar question: ‘what strings [the different] pieces together?’  He also reassured us that there was a clear narrative that appears to be emerging.

The narrative begins with methods for accounting and number systems, i.e. mechanisms to keep track of number.  We could consider the pre-history to comprise of artefacts such as tally sticks or physical devices that can be used to ‘relieve or replace mental calculation’.  This led to the emergence of mechanisms that used moving parts, such as an abacus and a slide rule.  The next ‘chapter’ would comprise of devices that embodied algorithms; their mechanisms carried out sequences or steps of calculations.  Here we have the work of Babbage and links to Hollerith (who was mentioned by Campbell-Kelly).

Doron then presented us with a challenge.  If we represent history in this way there is an implicit suggestion that there is a clear deterministic path from the past through to the present.  If I understand the point correctly, any narrative (or description of the past) is always going to be flawed, since there is so much more going on.  There could be situations in which nothing much happens.  A really interesting thought that Doron introduced was the idea of a ‘stored program’ being met with puzzlement and confusion, but this is an idea that distinctly defines what a computer is today.  (I haven’t made a word for word note of what Doron said, but this is something that has certainly stuck in my mind).

Another interesting point is that a serial narrative naturally excludes the parallel.  There is also an issue of reflexivity (to nick a posh word that I learnt from the social sciences); there is a relationship between history making machines and machines making history.  Linearity, it is argued, does a disservice.  One way to get over the challenge of linearity is to draw upon the stories of people.  These thoughts reminded me of a talk by Tilly Blyth, current keeper of technologies at the science museum, about the forthcoming ‘information age’ gallery.  Tilly also emphasised the importance of personal narratives and also cautioned about viewing history as a deterministic process.

One of the highlights of Doran’s talk was his ‘river diagram’ of the ‘history of computing’ (my ‘quotes’ at this point, since I don’t think I made a note of a ‘heading’).  Obviously, a picture is much better, but I’ll have a go at describing it succinctly. 

In essence, the grand narrative comprises of a bunch of different threads.  One thread that runs through it all is the history of calculation.  There is another thread about the history of communication.  In the middle, these threads are linked by ‘tributaries’ which relate to the subjects of automatic computation and information management.  These lead to another (current) thread of study which is entitled ‘electronic information age’.  I also made a note of a fabulous turn of phrase.  The current electronic information age emerged from the ‘fusion chamber of solid state physics’. Another bit of the diagram relates to different ways in which calculation or computation could be realised: mechanical, electromechanical or electronic. 

I also made a quick note of what were considered to be the core ideas in computing: mechanical processes, digital logic, algorithms, systems architecture, software and universality (I’m not sure what this means, though) and the internal stored program.  A narrative, it was argued, comes from a splicing together of different threads.

Returning to Babbage, Doran said that ‘[he] burst out of nowhere and confounds us with schemes that are unprecedented’; proposing mechanical calculating machines the size of rooms.  Doran also spoke about Ada Lovelace’s description of Babbage’s designs of his Analytical Engine, a machine that embodies many of the core ideas that are used in computing today: ‘a fetch execute cycle, transfer of memory form the processor, programmable, automatic execution, separation of program and memory’.

Doran ends with a question: ‘to what extent did this [Babbage’s work] influence modern computing?’  The answer is, ‘probably, not very much…’ (my quotes this time, rather than Doran’s), since many of Babbage’s discoveries and inventions were rediscovered and re-implemented as computing devices were realised in different forms, moving from the mechanical to the electrical.  Doran argued that perhaps because there is so much congruence between the different approaches, the ideas that have been rediscovered and re-implemented may well be really important and fundamental to the subject of computation.  To paraphrase from Doran’s book, Babbage isn’t so much a ‘great grandfather’ of computing, more of a ‘great uncle’.

Reflections

For me, Doron’s talk tied together aspects of the earlier talks.  Martin spoke about the history of information management and touched upon the electromechanical world of computing.  By describing the work of Turing, Jonathan spoke about and connected to the history of automatic computation.  One of the challenges that I’ve been grappling with is that there is so much history that is fundamentally interesting.  I’m interested in learning more, but it remains difficult to know which parts of a bigger picture to focus on. 

What I personally got from the day was a confirmation that my interest in related subjects such as communication technologies and the use, development and deployment of software (and algorithms) do indeed form an important piece of a ‘grand narrative’ in the history of computing and information technology.  Whilst I instinctively knew this to be true, Doran’s river diagram, for me, drew together different influences and connections in a very clear and obvious way.

Before heading home, I grabbed a brochure that had the title, ‘free public lectures’, vowing that I would have a good look  though it to see what else was going on.  After saying a few goodbyes to people I left the basement room and walked up a flight of stairs.  In the intervening hours, it had become dark; time had passed and I hadn’t really noticed.  When I reached the street I reached into by inside pocket for my smartphone to see if I had any messages.  A light was flashing.  I didn’t have any messages but I had a few alerts.  A theoretical Turing machine rendered into a physical device was alerting me to a comedy night that was to take place later on that week.  This was also a gentle reminder about how subtly technology had become entwined with my life.  Was I reliant on this little device?  That was a whole other question.

When I was heading home I asked myself, ‘how come I never knew this Gresham college place existed?’  Perhaps it is only one of those places that you hear about if you’re ‘in the know’.  London, for me, is gradually revealing some of its secrets.

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Ada Lovelace Day: City University London, 15 October 2013

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:42

After a day of meetings and problem solving, I wandered down to the basement where my scooter was parked.  I had a rough idea of the route I had to follow; I needed to head south from Camden town, navigate around Kings Cross and onto the Pentonville Road and then pick up the A1 at Angel, and then try to find my way south.  Thanks to Google Streetview I had geekily rehersed some of the trickier intersections – but I still ended up going the wrong way.

The reason for my Tuesday evening visit to the City University was to attend an event that was a part of a wider programme of events called the Ada Lovelace day (Finding Ada).  A website describes it as: ‘an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)’.  Okay, so I’m not a woman, but I’m fundamentally interested in two related subjects: the availability and accessibility of education to everyone, and the history of computing – so, it seemed a pretty cool event to go down and support.

Panel discussion

The event kicked off with a panel discussion.  The panel was introduced by Connie St Louis from City University.  The panel was a great mix of discussants from different sectors: the university sector, commercial sector and public sector.  Each discussant had a different story as to why they found science, technology or computing a fascinating subject.  

Whilst the subject of ‘coding’ (or the creating of computer programs) took central stage, quite a lot of the discussion it was great to hear about photonic research (from Arti Agrawal) and Prim Smith’s journey from programmer through to senior manager.  I particularly liked her description about how software can play a very important role in the provision of services to the public sector.   Vikki Read, from Unruly media, said that ‘it was important to give everyone the opportunity [to code]’.

Coding demo

After the introductions and initial questions came to an end we were given a taste of what ‘coding’ actually was.  In reality, this meant that we were shown what a ‘for loop’ looked like in a language called M-script which is used in something called Matlab.  For those who don’t know anything about Matlab, it’s a very complicated piece of software (I’m not going to say much more than this!)  It’s something that is used by engineering professionals to tackle some really tough engineering problems. 

For me, there were two things that didn’t work quite so well in this section: if you’re going to introduce what coding was all about Matlab wouldn’t have been my personal choice, and secondly, the coding demo was carried out by a man (which didn’t really seem to be in keeping with the day).  This said, we did get to see what M-script code looked like.

Doing a livecoding demo that is compelling and engaging is always going to be tough.  You’ve got to provide effective and efficient instructions that, in effect, are very understandable that do something that is interesting.   It’s not an easy task, and coders (in my humble opinion) only get into ‘the zone’ of coding (to appreciate the beauty and elegance of software) after a lot of hard work.

The Matlab demo was followed by a video presentation (YouTube) from code.org (website) which opened with the quote, ‘everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer... because it teaches you how to think’ (which, I think, is a good point).  I remember a quote from the video which goes something like, ‘software is about humanity’.  By writing code and considering abstractions (and how best to describe problems and situations to a computer), we need to reflect about our problems.  We also perpetually interact and work with software, whether we choose to or not.  It could even be argued that although software and programming has its foundations in mathematics and sciences, it is a subject that requires a huge amount of creativity.

One of the panel members later made the point that to be a scientist requires you to apply and use a huge amount of imagination.  The same, of course, can be said about software.

Question and answer session

The question and answer session was quite short and I haven’t taken too many notes during this part of the evening.  One of the questions asked was, ‘how difficult is coding?’  This one is difficult to answer easily since it depends on a number of different factors: the language, the problem that you’re trying to solve, and the level of motivation that you might have to solve it.  One other point that I do remember is a story about how one of the members of the panel gained her first job as an energy manager.  The short version of her answer was: it doesn’t hurt to be direct.

Reflections

This event was all about outreach and its objective was to inform and inspire, and this is something that is very tough to do in an hour.

Lovelace is a beguiling figure.  Her story is one that is fascinating.  It is also fascinating because of not necessarily what is known about her, but also what is disputed.  You don’t have to dig too far into her story to read about rumours of horse racing, gambling, debts and family jewels.  This said, she was certainly way ahead of her time (as were Babbage’s attempts to build a computing machine), when she wrote about the way that machines could weave patterns with numbers.   Babbage is certainly indebted to her when she translated (and added to) Menabrea’s description of his idea of the analytical engine.

During this event I was expecting there to be stronger voices that more directly call for more women in science, technology and engineering subjects.  I can remember a distinct gender disparity from my own undergraduate days when I studied computer science and I can clearly see that this is continuing today when I drop into computing and engineering tutorials (but less so in design tutorials) to give our tutors a bit of moral support.  I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say that I don’t really understand the reasons why this should be the case.

To me, computing is not just cool, it is very cool.  In what other subject can you invent infinitely complex, interactive and unique universes out of nothing but numbers?  Not only is software the stuff of pure thought, but it is also a way to solve real-world problems (some of which were hinted at by one of the panel members).

Not only did I get lost getting to the City University, I also got lost trying to leave the building. After a couple of false starts, I finally made it to the exit and out into the cool autumn air.  Minutes later, I had fired up the scooters engine and practically oblivious to the fact that deep inside the machine was some software (in my scooter’s engine management system) that was helping to propel me on my journey home.

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Google: celebrating the UK's computing heritage

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

On 1 July I attended an event at one of Google's offices in London to celebrate the UK's computing heritage.   The event was in five parts.  The first was a panel discussion about the very early days of the internet. This was followed by the screening of a short film, a presentation by Tilly Blyth about the Science Museum, some information about the national computing museum and the reconstruction of a computer called EDSAC, followed by a closing Q&A session.

I was immediately struck by the names of some of the speakers; people who were and continue to be fundamental pioneers of the internet.  During the event I made quite a few notes, only to later discover that the parts of the evening had been recorded and made available on YouTube.  So, if you're interested, do go and visit the links that are featured in this quick blog.  They're certainly worth a look.

The history of the internet

The first session, a panel discussion, comprised of Roger Scantlebury and Peter Wilkinson, from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), Peter Kirstein (Wikipedia) from UCL, University of London, and Vint Cerf (Wikipedia) from Google.    You can view this really interesting discussion by going to the video recording on YouTube.

For sake of completeness, however, I'm also going to leave you with some of my edited notes which more or less reflect the bits that piqued my interest.  There were occasions where that I became so engrossed in the discussions that I forgot to take notes!  So they are, by necessity, very course and incomplete.  I recommend the video over than my notes.

 As soon as the discussion started, I started to remember stuff that I had read in various histories of the internet.  Donald Davies, who worked at NPL initiated a project that had intended to be national in scope - in some ways, similar to the Arpanet.    NPL has played an important role in the history of computing (and the internet).  Alan Turing moved to NPL to work on the ACE computer (Wikipedia), after spending time at Bletchley Park and working on voice scrambling systems.  This led to the development of the English Electric DEUCE computer (Wikipedia).

As an aside, I was really interested to learn that the NPL chose to make use of a Honeywell DPP-516  (Wikipedia) as the basis for some of their networking designs.  This happens to be the same machine that was used as an Internet Message Processor (Wikipedia) in the Arpanet project.  (It also turns out that the contractor that developed the IMP, BBN, visited NPL - interesting stuff!)

Peter Kirstein spoke about how he and how UCL became involved.  Politics, of course, proved to be a fundamental issue.  ARPANet was connected to a seismic array based in Norway called NORSAR which could be used to detect soviet nuclear tests.  Vint Cerf made some really interesting points - that the challenges were mostly bureaucratic ones rather than about technology.  Getting people to communicate is harder.  Like I said: the video is better than my notes!

LEO: Lyons Electronic Office

I've known of the LEO computer for a very long time, but it isn't a machine that I know too much about.  Google has sponsored the making of a film to celebrate the the LEO computer (YouTube), which is certainly.  I was very surprised to see a number of the participants in the film in the audience.  The underlined how recent this history is, and how phenomenally quickly technology continues to move.

Science Museum: Information age gallery

Tilly Blyth, from the Science Museum, London, spoke about the development of a new 'information age' gallery.  The aim of the gallery is to celebrate last two hundred years of communication and information technologies (I hope I've got this right!)  Tilly described its narrative approach; the museum has chosen twenty one different stories.  (I've made a note of a four)

The first is an exhibit of the last manual telephone exchange that was used in the country.  This physical artefact has the power to not only convey changes in technology but also the changes in work practices.  Another exhibit relates to the LEO computer, which I'm sure will be both interesting and enchanting in equal measure.

Some current technologies have their own interesting histories.  There's also going to be an exhibit about the global positioning system.  Commerce and information can now be more readily connected to physical locations.  I was reminded of these new apps where you can hail a taxi by pressing a button on your phone.

The final teaser was a mention of an exhibit that related to how technology was consumed and used in developing countries, such as Cameroon.  We can so easily get wrapped up in our own worldview that we can easily forget that information and communications technology has a global impact.  We were told that the museum was working with an anthropologist with a view to trying to understand how devices are used in different cultures.

I've taken a note of the phrase, 'stories of contrast'.  I'm looking forward to its opening.

EDSAC Reconstruction

David Hartley, the director of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park spoke about the history of the museum.  David spoke about significant machines, such as the Harwell Dekatron computer and the Colossus reconstruction. He also touched upon the role of the British Computer Conservation Society emphasising its importance by saying that 'there is nothing so boring as a dead computer'.  David also mentioned that there were parallel cultures to the museum; one that related to the more traditional role of a museum and one that related to machine reconstruction (and preservation).

The second film of the day was entitled EDSAC - A cultural shift in computing (YouTube).  This video described a project to rebuild a historic computer.  It's certainly worth a look if you're interested.

Closing session

The opening question, to Vint, was 'did you have the notion that the internet would change the world?  What were you trying to achieve in those days?'  Vint spoke about a range of different things, and mentioned Douglas Englebart's mother of all demos  (YouTube) and other influences.   Vint also speaks about IPv6, space travel, the history of TCP/IP and ubiquitous computing.  The question and answer session has also been recorded (YouTube).   Some really great questions!

Reflections

One thing that struck me was how many people attended the event.  I was amazed!  Another thought is that it really did feel like a celebration.  I was also amazed to see some of the people who featured in the films that were screened sitting in the audience.  This reminded me of how close we are to our own history, and also how we are all wrapped up in it too. 

When we're in the middle of change we can't easily see the rate that it is happening.  Events such as this one helps us to step back and realise how far we've come in such a phenomenally short time.  A really good point was that whilst the technology is, in its own right, pretty interesting - it's the human structures and the politics that have to be negotiated to really allow things to be work.  Arguably, these represent the tougher challenges.

We have a reflexive relationship with technology.  We make technology by working with people.  When we've made something, technology has a potential to change us too.  An implicit challenge that each of us face is to understand and acknowledging the extent of these changes.

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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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BCS Lecture: The Power of Abstraction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 10 Aug 2018, 14:41

When I was a graduate student at the University of Manchester (or the bit of it that was once known as UMIST) I was once asked to show some potential computer science students around the campus.  At the end of the tour I ushered them to lecture which was intended to give the students a feel for what things would be like if they came to the university.

The lecture, given by one of the faculty, was all about the notion of abstraction.  We were told that this was a fundamental concept in computing.  In some respects, it felt less of a lecture about computing, but more of a lecture about philosophy.  I had never been to a lecture quite like it and it was one that really stuck in my mind.  When I left the lecture, I thought, 'why didn't I have this kind of lecture when I was an undergraduate?'  As an undergrad I had spent many a hour creating various kinds of computer programs without really being told that there was an essential and fundamental idea that underpinned what I was doing.

When I saw the British Computer Society (BCS) advertising a lecture that was about the 'power of abstraction', I knew that I had to try to make time to come along. The lecture, by Professor Barbara Liskov, was an annual BCS lecture (the Karen Spärck Jones lecture) that honours women in computing research.

All this sounds great, right?  But what, fundamentally, is abstraction?  An 'abstract' at the top of a formal research paper says, in essence, what it contains.  Abstraction, therefore, can be thought of as a process of creating a representation of something, and that something might well be a problem of some kind.  Admittedly, this sounds both confusing and vague...

Barbara began her lecture by stating that abstraction is the basis of how we implement computer software.  The real world is, fundamentally, a messy place.   Since computers are ultimately mathematical machines, we need a way to represent problems (using, ultimately, numbers) so that a computer can work with them.  As a part of her lecture, Barbara said that she was going to talk through some developments in the way that people (or computer programmers) could create and work with abstractions.  I was intrigued; this talk wasn't just about a history of programming languages, it was also a history of thought.

So, what history was covered?  We were immediately taken back to the 1970s.  This was a period in computing history where the term 'software crisis' gained currency. One of the reasons was that it was becoming increasingly apparent that creating complex software systems was a fundamentally difficult thing to do.  It was also apparent that projects were started, became excruciatingly late and then abandoned, costing astronomical amounts of money. (It might be argued that this still happens today, but that's a whole other debate which goes beyond this pretty short blog post).

One of the reasons why software is so fundamentally hard to create is that it is 'mind stuff'.  Software isn't like a physical artefact or product that we can see. The relationships between components can easily become incredibly complicated which can, in turn, make things unfeasibly difficult.  Humans, after all, have limited brain capacity to deal with complexity (so, it's important that we create tools and techniques that help us to manage this).

We were introduced to a number of important papers. The first paper was by Dijkstra, who wrote a letter to the Communications of the ACM entitled, 'Goto considered harmful'.  'Goto' is an instruction that can help to create very complicated (and unfathomable) software very quickly.  Barbara described the difficulty very clearly. One of the reasons why software is so hard is that there is a fundamental disconnect between how the program text might be read by programmers and how it might be processed or executed by a machine.  If we can create a program representation that tries to bridge the difference between the static (what is described should happen) and the dynamic (what actually happens when software does its stuff), then things would be a whole lot easier.

Another paper that was mentioned was Wirth's 'program development by stepwise refinement'. Wirth is famous for the design of two closely related languages: Pascal and Modula-2. It certainly is the case that it's possible to write software without the 'goto' instruction, but Barbara made the interesting point that it's also possible to write good, well-structured software in bad languages (providing that you're disciplined enough). The challenge is that we're always thinking about trade-offs (in terms of program performance and code economy), so we can easily be lured into doing clever things in incomprehensible ways.

Barbara spoke about the importance of modules whilst mentioning a paper by Parnas entitled, 'information distribution aspects of design methodology'. One of the great things about modules, other than that they can be used to group bits of code together, is that they enable the separation of the implementation and the interface.   This has reminded me of some stuff from my undergrad days and time spent in industry: modules are connected to the term 'cohesion'.  Cohesion is, simply, the idea that something should do only one thing.  A function that has one name and does two or more things (that are not suggested in its name) is a recipe for confusion and disaster.  But I fear I'm beginning to digress from the lecture and onto one of my 'coding hobbyhorses'.

Through a short mention of a language called Simula-67 (Wikipedia) we were then introduced to a paper by Liskov and Zilles entitled, 'programming with abstract data types'.  We were told that this paper represented a sketch of a programming language which eventually led to the creation of a language called CLU (Wikipedia), CLU being short for Clusters.

There is one question Barbara clearly answered, which is: why go to all the trouble of writing a programming language?  It's to understand whether an idea works in practice and to understand some of the barriers to performance.  Also, whenever a language designer describes a language in natural language there are always going to be some assumptions that the compiler writer must make. Only by going through the process of creating a working language are language designers able to 'smoke out' any potential problems.

Just diverting into programming language speak for a moment, CLU implemented static type checking, used a heap, and doesn't support concurrency, the goto statement or inheritance.  What it does implement is polymorphism (or the use of generics), iterators and exception handling.

Barbara also mentioned a very famous language called Smalltalk, developed by Alan Kay.  Different developments at different times and at different places have all influenced the current generation of programming languages.  Our current object-oriented languages enable programmers to define abstractions, or a representation of a problem in a way that wasn't possible during the earlier days of software.

Research directions

Barbara mentioned two research topics that continue to be of interest.  The first was the question of what might be the most appropriate design of a programming language for novices?  In various years, these have been BASIC (which introduced the dreaded Goto statement), Pascal, and more recently Java.  Challenges of creating a language that helps learners develop computational thinking skills (Wikipedia) include taking account of programming language design trade-offs, such as ease of use vs. expressive power, and readability vs. writeability, and how to best deal with modularity and encapsulation.

Another research subject is languages for massively parallel computers.  These days, PCs and tablets, more often than not, contain multiple processor cores (which means that they can, quite literally, be doing more than one calculation at once).  You might have up to four cores, but how might you best design a programming language that more efficiently allows you to define and solve problems when you might have hundreds of processors working at the same time?  This immediately took me back to my undergrad days when I had an opportunity to play with a language called Occam (Wikipedia).

There was one quote from Barbara's lecture that stood out (for me), and this was when she said, 'you don't get ideas by not working on things'. 

Reflections

I should say at the point that I haven't done Barbara's speech justice.  There were a whole lot of other issues and points that were mentioned but I haven't touched on.  I really enjoyed being taken on a journey that described how programming languages have changed.  I liked the way that the challenges of coding (and the challenge of using particular instructions) led to discussions about modules, abstract data types and then to, finally, object-oriented programming languages.

It's also possible to take a broader perspective to the notion of abstraction, one that has been facilitated by language design.  During Barbara's lecture, I was mindful of two related subjects that can be strongly connected to the notion of abstraction.  The first of these is the idea of design patterns.

Design patterns (Wikipedia) take their inspiration from architecture. Rather than design a new building from scratch every time you need to make one, why not buy a pre-existing design that has already solved some of the problems that you might potentially come up against?  There is a strong parallel with software: developers often have to solve very similar problems time and time again.  If we have a template to work from, we might arguably get things done more quickly and cheaply.

Developers can use patterns to gain inspiration about how to go about solving common problems.  By using well understood and defined patterns, the communication between programmers and developers can be enhanced since abstract concepts can be readily named; they permit short-cuts to understanding.

In some cases, patterns can be embedded into pre-existing code that can be used by developers to kick-start a development.  This can take the form of a framework, software code that solves well known problems that ultimately enables developers to get on and solve the problems that they really need to solve (as opposed to dealing with stuff such as reading and writing to databases).

Abstraction has come a long way in my own very short career as a developer. One of the biggest challenges that developers face is how to best break down a problem into structures that can be represented in a language that a machine can understand.  Another challenge lies with understanding the various tools that developers now have at their disposal to achieve this.

Note: The logo at the top of the blog is used to indicate that this blog relates to a BCS event and this post is not connected with the BCS in any other way. All mistakes and opinions are my own, rather than that of the OU or the BCS.

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Journey: London to Lincoln

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 14 May 2017, 10:01

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Riding from London to Lincoln on a motorbike is a blast.  I decided to be sensible and set off after the rush hour but I just couldn't wait.  I edged out into the London traffic at nine in the morning and quickly realised that I had made a mistake.  After about half an hour of wrestling with traffic, I was on an A-road heading towards the London orbital motorway.  Fifteen minutes later, I was circumnavigating a large chunk of London and heading towards the M11; a route that I hadn't done before.

The reason for my trip up to Lincolnshire was to visit my parents.  It was the third time I did this trip via motorbike and on this occasion I decided that I wanted to go on a journey that I had promised to take ever since I started to learn more about the history of computing.  

Lincoln is a city that I know well.  I spent quite a lot of time there, staying at my parents house whilst I got my head down to spend many hours doing some computer programming for a research project I worked on a couple of years ago.  During this time I also gained my motorbike licence.  I used to spend hours riding to and from Lincoln, gaining some kind of perverse pleasure if I became snarled up in a traffic jam (since it gave me the opportunity to practice clutch control and feathering the back brake).  Gradually, some of the city's secrets revealed themselves to me; the links between the old and the new - the contrast between the imposing medieval cathedral and ancient castle juxtaposed against modern industrial units and trading estates.

The M11 was a dull but quick road.  Within a couple of hours I skirted part Cambridge, a city that I've been to before a number of times but barely know.  As I rode I made a mental note that I need to return.  When it comes to the history (and the future) of the computer, Cambridge is a fundamentally important place.  My objective, at that moment, was to get to Lincoln and leave Cambridge for another day.

The M11 soon became the A1 and within hardly any time at all, I discovered the exit I was looking for: Stamford.  A gentle ride through this pretty market town soon gave way to quieter roads, the kinds of roads that motorcyclists love; roads that are gently undulating and sweep from left to right.  Not only were they undulating, they were also fairly empty, there was no rain and very little wind: perfect.  Small towns and villages came and went, my destination becoming ever nearer.  All in all, the journey took about five hours, including two stops (one for fuel, another for coffee).

After two days of catching up with my parents, the time had come; I was going to take a short trip to explore some places I had read about, had ridden past and had never properly seen.  I donned my protective 'gubbins' and set off across the fens.  There is this glorious road between the village where I was staying and Lincoln.  It's dead straight, with wide distant fields on either side - you can see for miles.

My objective was to get to the heart of the city and park in a place where had seen bikers parking.  When I got to the city, I blundered my way through the one way system twice before I bagged a space, vacated by a departing Ducati.  My first objective was to figure out where Silver Street was.  I looked up a nearby street.  I had accidentally (or unconsciously) parked on Silver Street!  My next objective was to find number 34, the birth place of George Boole (1815-1864).

If you're a computer scientist or just a casual user of a spreadsheet or database you would have quite likely stumbled across his name.  The terms 'boolean expressions' or 'boolean conditions' have been, quite obviously, derived from his name (in the same way that the word algorithm can be traced back to the name of a Persian mathematician).  I have to admit that I've only just started to scratch the surface on the history of Boole.  George's father, John, was cobbler.  Apparently was somewhat distracted by other pursuits, particularly mathematics and science.

I walked the entire length of Silver Street to try to find number thirty-four but quickly became confused; the street numbers were few and far between.  There seemed to be no discernible pattern.  I adopted the age old tactic of 'appearing to be confused' and barrelled into the entrance of an estate agent.  'Excuse me, mate, is this number thirty-four?' I asked a smart looking man who was wearing a shirt and sporting a tie.  'This is number thirty-two... I have no idea where number thirty-four is, might be next door?'  I offered a smiley thank you and returned to the street.

'Hello... erm, is this number thirty-four?', 'Yes!' came the delighted reply from a nice lady who was sat at a computer.  Number thirty-four, like number thirty-two was an estate agency.  'I've found it!' I exclaimed.  I took a step back and cast my eyes around the office-like interior, as if I was looking for some kind of shrine to the great man.  Instead, I saw a photocopier. 

The nice lady was bewildered.  I explained that where she worked just happened to be the birthplace of a famous mathematician (which appeared to bewilder her even more).  I was tempted to explain my enthusiasm by started to talk about the importance of Boole and the history of the computer but I felt that it was neither the time nor the place since I obviously wasn't interested in buying a house.  Realising that my first quest was coming to an end, I began to feel that I was making a bit of a nuisance of myself.  Before I went, I asked for their business card (to gain proof that their estate agency really was number thirty-four).  Sure enough, I had found number thirty four Silver Street.

Boole invented something called Boolean Algebra and I know his work in terms of Boolean Logic and studied it college during my vocational course in computing.  He proposed a form of algebra that works with two states: one or zero, or true or false.  The reason why Boole's work became so important was that computers represent everything using numbers which are made of these two states  Sound, music, images, video, computer software, documents, instructions to turn on burglar alarms, pretty much anything you can imagine can ultimately, represented using just 'on' and 'off'.  Strings of these states form numbers: the bigger the number of 'bits' (which are, in essence, Boolean on-off states) the more numbers that can be stored and moved around in a computer.

But why use those two states?  The answer is pretty simple: it makes electronics simple.  By going with the simplest possible representation it's then possible to do ever increasingly complicated stuff with a high degree of reliability.  One day, I hope to write something about electronic machines that worked with the kinds of numbers that humans work with - but would require a much longer journey than the one I'm writing about.

I'm simplifying things terribly here (since I'm not a mathematician and I'm writing about subjects that are slightly outside of my area of expertise), but I think it's safe to say that Boole's work on logic is so fundamental that without it we wouldn't have computer processors or logic circuits.  Boole, ultimately, created the tools of thought that allowed us to work with logic states.  In software terms, an on-off state can be considered akin to an atom in the physical world.

Boole's birthplace wasn't the only place I wanted to visit.  After saying my goodbyes to the nice estate agent people, I had another quest: to go and visit the school that Boole founded.  I walked to the end of Silver Street, crossed a road, walked a bit, then got confused... and only then consulted my GPS enabled mobile phone.  Within minutes, I was walking up a steep flight of stairs towards Lincoln's medieval cathedral.  It stuck me that I had probably found a path that hadn't changed for a couple of hundred years; some of the steps had been visibly worn down over time.  Looking upwards, I could see the cathedral through a small archway in the distance.

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When I was at the top, standing in the shadow of the cathedral, I consulted my phone again and figured out where I needed to go.  I knew where I was.  I had ridden on it many times before on my bike training.  It's a road that runs from the bottom of the hill (where the industrial and retail part of the city), to the ancient part of the city.  The top bit can get a bit exciting, since it's quite a fast road and two lanes merge into one before taking a route past the cathedral.   Within moments, I had arrived at my second destination.  I peered through the railings at a lovely looking house and I soon found a plaque on the wall that indicated that I was in the right place.  Here's what it said: 'George Boole, father of modern algebra. Author of the laws of thought and first professor of mathematics at university college, Cork, was born in Lincoln and established an academy in this house c. 1840'.  Satisfied, I turned around and retraced my steps and returned to my bike. 

Five days later it was time to return to London.  I set off ridiculously early, hoping to avoid as much traffic as I could.  The ride though Lincolnshire was beautiful.  There were these moments where you could see where dew had touched the undulating roads that I could see in the distance; roads that appeared as ribbons of silver.  I was touched by not only the physicality of negotiating them, but awestruck by the light and the experience that the roads were presenting me.  By the time I had got to London, everyone was fully awake and the motorways that took me back to South East London were pretty solid.

I've now got some more work to do to answer a number of different questions: what was the time in which Boole living was really like?  Who else did Boole know?  What kind of work did he do after he left Lincolnshire?  How exactly did he influence other mathematicians and has he made other contributions to mathematics (with a view to understanding its connection with computing), other than the ones that I've already touched on?  Time, of course, is the challenge: there are so many other questions out there that are interesting!

I've also got some plans for the next journey. I'm going to stick around in South East London for a bit and then cross the river for another Babbage related adventure.  I'm going to be spending quite a lot of time in London before venturing further afield. 

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Journey: Westminster to Walworth

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:39

A number of months ago I wrote a blog about buying a smartphone (I know what you're thinking: this sounds pretty boring!)  The blog ended on a question: 'where did this device come from?'  The device I'm referring to is, of course, a computer.  Such a simple question can be answered in very different ways and one way to answer it is to think about the people who played an important role in either thinking about or creating one.

This is a follow up blog post about a trip to a part of London that I had never been to visit before, but one that I have known about for quite some time.  My quest was simple: to seek out the birthplace of someone who is known as the 'great uncle' of computing.  There are, of course, many other stories and journeys that can be connected to the one that follows, and I hope that this is going to one more in a very long series of blog posts.

A journey in reverse

April has been a month of contrasts.  The first few months were absolutely freezing, but this day was enticing.  It was a day that I couldn't resist exploring a bit of my own city; taking a journey that I had been threatening to make ever since winter had descended with certainty.  I exited Westminster underground station and looked skyward, through glorious morning sunshine, quickly finding Big Ben and the houses of parliament.  In some respects, it seemed like an appropriate starting point, since government had played an important role in the life of Charles Babbage, a Victorian gentleman, mathematician, engineer and (if we can stretch it this far) raconteur.  Babbage is famous for proposing and partially designing mechanical calculating engines that echo aspects of the inner workings of today's modern day computers.

The purpose of this blog isn't so much to talk about Babbage (although he is the reason why I am writing in the first place), but more to record the trip.  When it comes to Babbage I've got numerous books and notes and read and re-read, and I think it'll take time to understand the fine detail and significance of his inventions.  In some respects, this is a journey of contextualising, or understanding.

'Excuse me, sir... we want to take a photo...', said a voice behind me.  I peered into my smartphone, thumbing at a googlemap, trying to figure out where I was.  A few paces away, the tourist had gained her view of the London Eye, and I was off, gingerly taking my first steps towards a new (albeit modest) adventure.

Within five or six minutes of walking, I had pieced another part of London together in my head.  My knowledge of the city is fragmented across three dimensions; distant childhood memories, an improving knowledge of the underground map, and a misunderstood knowledge of the monopoly board.  I recognised streets that I have previously travelled through whilst riding on my motorbike towards my office, traversing them in a different direction.  I soon knew where I was heading: I was going towards the Elephant.

Within ten minutes, I found myself at the Elephant and Castle, a bustling inner city area serviced by the Bakerloo and Northern underground lines, a train station that heads north to Kentish Town, and bus routes I had never heard of.  Remembering a series of photographs that had featured in the London Evening Standard newspaper a couple of days before, I decided to try to find a scene that I remembered.  I dived into some walkways and emerged at a train platform that overlooked one of the most notorious housing estates of the 1960s: the Heygate estate.  I know next to nothing about architecture but I do know that they Heygate was one of a number of brutalist housing estates that were built between the 60's and 70's.  Whilst on one hand there is a certain elegance and simplicity in its structures, on the other hand the structures are inhuman, stark and impersonal.  The impersonal nature was amplified since all the windows I could see were boarded up with steel shutters.  These, I thought, looking from the outside, were places to live in.  These flats didn't look like homes, and I'm sure I would have felt the same if I had visited when they were fully occupied.

I accessed the rail platform through the shopping centre.  Built in the 1960's, the shopping centre was showing its age.  In comparison to bright and airy modern malls the Elephant's shopping centre was slightly claustrophobic.  Chain stores were the exception rather than the rule, which was something I liked.  On the second floor, I decided that a well deserved up of tea was overdue, so I popped into a relatively new Polish café I had visited once before.  It's functional manner, i.e. you had to clean your own table, seemed to be entirely in keeping with the Elephant's very functional shopping centre.  I approved.

After a few false starts, I walked past the Strata (Wikipedia) tower block, around a gentle curve in the road and onto the Walworth Road.  Within five or so minutes I had found what I had been looking for; a simple blue plaque commemorating the birth of Babbage, the 'grandfather of the computer', situated on the corner of Larcom Street.  Walking down Larcom Street I discovered another blue plaque, this time commemorating the birth of Micheal Faraday and his work on electromagnetism.  Both plaques were on the side of what is now a clinic.

I took a couple of minutes to do some more exploring.  I really liked Larcom Street.  It offered a slight bend, and then revealed a quiet tree-lined road, filled with bay fronted three level Victorian terrace houses.  The hustle and bustle of Walworth Road disappeared into the background.  Cars parked aside, it felt as if I had stumbled into an oasis of history; a time warp.  Modernity came into view again when I arrived at the end of the street.  I saw modern flats on my right, recently constructed, and there was some building work going on, diggers gouging the ground in preparation for foundations.

Ten minutes later, I was back on the Walworth Road, astonished by its busyness and the single row of shops that seemed to go on and on and on.  With Larcom Street behind me, I caught sight of fast food establishments and the wonderfully eclectic East Street market which dates back, in one form or another, to the 1880s (as another blue plaque testified).  Stall holders had just about got everything ready for the day's trading by the time I had arrived.  I also accidentally found another blue plaque which celebrated the birth of another famous resident; Charlie Chapin.

My journey home took a bit of time.  Walking back to the Elephant, I passed by a fire damaged museum, and then found a bus stop on the New Kent Road - the direction of home.  This wasn't a big or exciting adventure, but it was one that was fun and has made me slightly more aware of my own city.  Moving forwards, what I've got to do is continue with my reading about Babbage and take at least three more journeys.

The next one (about Babbage) will be to the town house where he not only dreamt of mechanical computers, but also built parts of them too.  Then there's a trip to Greenwich, which relates to a key vector of inspiration that caused Babbage to start his life long quest to make a mechanical computer, and then a visit to South Kensington, where the remnants of his computing devices are currently housed.

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Mathematics, Breaking Tunny and the First Computers

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 15 May 2017, 12:11

Pciture of the Colossus computer

One of my interests is the history of computing. This blog post aims to summarise a seminar that as given by Malcolm MacCallum, University of London, held at the Open University on 30 October 2012.  Malcolm used to be the director of the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Research, Bristol.  Malcolm began by saying something about the institute, its history and its research.

This blog complements an earlier blog that I wrote to summarise a lecture that was given at City University.  This earlier lecture was entitled Breaking Enigma and the legacy of Alan Turing in Code Breaking and took place back in April 2012, and was one of a series of events to celebrate the centenary of Alan Turing's birth.  Malcolm's talk was similar in some respects but had different focus: there was more of an emphasis on the story that led to the development of what could be arguably one of the world's first computers.

I'm not going to say much about the historical background that is obviously connected with this post, since a lot of this can be uncovered by visiting the various links that I've given (if you're interested).  Instead, I'm going to rush ahead and introduce a swathe of names, terms and concepts all of which connect with the aim of Malcolm's seminar.

Codes, Cyphers and People

In some respects the story of the Enigma code, which took place at the Government Code and Cypher School, Bletchley Park, is one that gains a lot of the historical limelight.  It is easy to conflate the breaking of the Enigma code (Wikipedia), the Tunny code (Wikipedia) and the work of Alan Turing (Wikipedia).  When it comes to the creating of 'the first computer' (quotes intentional), the story of the breaking of the Tunny code is arguably more important. 

The Tunny code is a code generated by a device called the Lorenz cypher machine.  The machine combined transmission, encryption and decryption.  The Enigma code was very different.  Messages encrypted using Enigma were transmitted by hand in morse code.

I'm not going to describe much of the machines since I've never seen a real one, and cryptography isn't my specialism.  Malcolm informed us that each machine had 12 wheels (or rotors).  Each wheel had a set of cams that were set to either 1 or 0.  These wheel settings were changed every week or month (just to make things difficult).  As each character is transmitted, the wheels rotate (as far as I know) and an electrical circuit is created through each rotor to create an encrypted character.  The opposite happens when you decrypt: you put in an encrypted character one side and a plain text (decrypted) character magically comes out the other side.

For everything to work, the rotors for both the encrypting and decrypting machines have to have the same starting point (as otherwise everything will be gibberish).  These starting points were transmitted in unencrypted plain text at the start of a transmission

Through wireless intercept stations it was possible to capture the signals that the Lorenz cypher machines were transmitting.  The codebreakers at Bletchley Park were then faced with the challenge of figuring out the structure and design of a machine that they had never seen.  It sounds like an impossible challenge to figure out how many rotors and wheels it used, how many states the rotors had, and what these states were.

I'll be the first to admit that the fine detail of how this was done pretty much escapes me (and, besides, I understand that some of the activities performed at Bletchley Park remains classified).  What I'm really interested in is the people who played an important role in designing the physical hardware that helped with the decryption of the Tunny codes.

Depths and machines

Malcolm hinted at how the codebreakers managed to begin to gain an insight into how the Lorenz machine (and code) worked.  He mentioned (and I noted) the use of depths (Wikipedia), which is where two or more messages were sent using the same key (or machine setting).  Another note that I made was something called a Saltman break, which is mentioned in a book I'll reference below (which is one of those books which is certainly on my 'to read' list).

Malcolm mentioned two different sections of Bletchley Park: the Testery (named after Ralph Tester), and the Newmanry (named after Max Newman).  Another character that was mentioned was Bill Tutte who applied statistical methods (again, the detail of which is totally beyond me and this presentation) to the problem of wheel setting discovery.

It was realised that key aspects of code breaking could be mechanised.  Whilst Turing helped to devise the Bombe (Wikipedia) equipment that was used with the decryption of the Enigma code, another machine called the Heath Robinson (Wikipedia) was built.

One of the difficulties with the Heath Robinson was its speed. It made use of electromechanical relays which were slow, restricting the code breaking effort. A new approach was considered: the creation of a calculating machine that made use of thermionic valves (a precursor to the transistor).  Valves were perceived to be unreliable but it was realised that if they were continually powered up they were not stressed.

Colossus

Tommy Flowers (Wikipedia) engineered and designed a computer called Colossus (Wikipedia), drawing experience gained working at the Dollis Hill Post Office research station in North London.  

Although Colossus has elements of a modern computer it could be perhaps best described as a 'special purpose cryptographic device'.  It was not programmable in the same way that a modern computer has become (this is a development that comes later), but its programs could be altered; perhaps by changing its circuitry (I don't yet know how this would work).  It did, however, made use of familiar concepts such as interrupts, it synchronised its operation by a clock-pulse, stored data in memory, used shift registers and did some parallel processing.  Flowers also apparently introduced the term 'arithmetic and logic unit'.

Colossus was first used to break a message on 5 February 1944.  A rather different valve based calculator, the ENIAC (Wikipedia), built by the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, was used two years later.

Final points

Malcolm told us that ten Collosi were built (I might have spelt that wrong, but what I do know is that Collosus-es certainly isn't the right spelling!), with the last one being dismantled in 1960.  A total of twenty seven thousand messages were collected, of which thirteen thousand messages were decrypted.  Malcolm also said that Flowers was 'grossly under rewarded' for his imaginative and innovative work on Colossus.  I totally agree.

Research into the Colossus was carried out by Brian Randell from the Univerisity of Newcastle in the 1970s.  A general report on the Tunny code was only recently released in 2000.  Other sources of information that Malcolm mentioned was a book about the Colossus by Jack Copeland (Wikipedia)  (which is certainly on my 'to read' list), and a biography of Alan Turing by Andew Hodges (Wikipedia).

Malcom's talk reminded me of how much computing history is, quite literally, on our doorstep.  I regularly pass Bletchley on the way to the Open University campus at Milton Keynes.  There are, of course, so many other places that are close by that have played an important role in the history of computing.  Although I've already been twice to Bletchley Park, I'm definitely going to go again and take a longer look at the various exhibits.

(Picture: Wikipedia)

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Journey: Introduction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:41

It was a glorious September day; a day that echoed many of the best summer days that made the London Olympics so special for Londoners.  It was a day that I knew was going to change my life in a small but significant way - it was the day that I finally got around to changing my old fashioned (or 'classic') mobile telephone into one of those new fangled Smartphones.

'Why did it take you so long?  You work in technology?!', I could hear some of my friends and colleagues exclaiming. 'I was expecting you to be one of those who would jump at a chance to play with new stuff...'  The most obvious reason I can give as to why it took me so long is one that is immediately the most cynical: I've been around long enough to appreciate that early stuff doesn't always work as intended.   I decided to 'hang back' to see how the technology environment changes.  Plus, I was perfectly happy to muddle through with my simple yet elegant mobile phone which efficiently supported its primary purpose, which was to make and receive telephone calls.

I jumped on a red London bus and checked my text messages on my classic phone for the last time (there were none), and settled down to enjoy the ride of around four stops to Lewisham town centre, a bustling part of South East London.  I knew exactly where I was going -  to a shop entitled 'The Carphone Warehouse' (which sounds a bit anomalous, since it was neither a warehouse and I don't know anyone who has a dedicated car phone any more).

Stepping off the bus, I immediately found myself amidst a busy crowd.  One of the things that I love about Lewisham is its fabulous market.  I made my way past the fishmongers and hardware stall, and then past the numerous fruit and veg stalls, all of which seemed to be doing a roaring trade.  I then stepped into an air conditioned shopping centre and into the side entrance of the phone shop.  It was like I had entered another world.

After looking at a couple of 'device exhibits', I decided I needed to chat to someone.  It suddenly struck me how busy the shop was.  I joined an orderly queue had formed in front of the cash desk.  I could see that employees were deep in conversation with customers who had expressions that conveyed concentration.  In the background I could hear a woman speaking in what I understood to be a Nigerian accent expressing unhappiness.  'You can ring the shop...', said the shop assistant.  'But I don't have a phone!' came the flabbergasted reply. 'I want to speak to your manager!'

After about ten or fifteen minutes, it was my turn.  I explained to the harassed shop assistant what model of phone I wanted (I had done a bit of research) told her something about my current contract and mobile telecoms provider, and had a couple of questions.  These were about the costs, whether I could keep my telephone number and how long it would take to move from my old phone to the new phone.  I was told that my phone could have a choice of colours, that the sky is (approximately) the limit in terms of how much I wanted to spend on the contract, and that they can't help me today because the 'genius bar' guy who migrates telephone numbers from one phone system to another had fainted and had to go home.

It was at that point that I decided to leave the shop and theoretically return another day when the 'genius man' was around.  When I was about to go, I was given a really useful nugget of information, which was, 'just go around the corner to that other shop - they can change contracts for you, you don't even have to call up, which you would have to do if you came into the shop later'.

The second telephone shop I went into was a lot quieter and less frantic.  I asked my same questions about model, price and time and was given impeccably clear answers.  Everything was straight forward (if not slightly more expensive).  The helpful assistant cancelled my existing phone by pressing a few buttons, seemed unperturbed that my contract address was about two years out of date, and gave me a new contract to sign.  Plus, there were no (visibly) angry customers.

Within twenty minutes, I was in possession of one of the most powerful computing devices I have ever possessed.  I was sent on my merry way whilst carrying my new mobile friend in a branded bag.  It was as if I had just bought a very expensive shirt from an upmarket fashion boutique - this was a world away from the time when I bought my first ever mobile phone in the mid 1990s.

Heading home, I passed three different mobile telephone shops.  Each shop represented a different mobile phone provider.  I always knew that competition between mobile providers was fierce, but the act of walking past so many very similar shops (which can be found pretty much in every big high street) emphasised the vibrancy and visibility of the mobile telecommunications industry.

As I caught the bus back home, I started to think about the device I had just bought.  The short journey to and from Lewisham made me consider the different forces that all contributed towards making a tiny computing device through which you can almost live your entire life.  Through your phone, you can discover your current location and learn about your onward journey, search for businesses that are close by and explore the depths of human knowledge whilst you stand in the street.  You can even hold up your smartphone and the sights that you see annotated with information.  Your smartphone can become (or, so I've heard!) an extension of yourself; like an additional limb or a sense.  The smartphone is, fundamentally, a technological miracle.  These devices make the internet pervasive and information phenomenally accessible.

Whilst considering magic that has emerged from decades of development and continual technological creativity, I asked myself a fundamental question.  This was, 'where has all this come from?'  We can consider a smartphone to be an emergent application of physics, chemistry, electronics, industrial design, engineering and computing and a whole host of other disciplines and subjects too!  My question, however, was a bit more specific.  Since a smartphone is ultimately a very portable and powerful computer. My question is, 'where does the computer come from?'

Such a question doesn't have an easy answer.  In fact, there are many stories which are closely intertwined and interconnected.  The story of the networking is intrinsically connected with the history of computing and computer science.  Just as today's modern smartphones will be carrying out many different tasks (or threads of operation) running at the same time, there are many different threads of innovation that have happened at different times and at different places throughout the world. 

The development of a technology and its application is situated.  By this, I mean, physically situated within a particular place, but also within a particular societal context or environment.  Devices and technologies don't just magically spring into existence.  There is always a rich and complex back story, and this is often one that is fascinating.

Like so many Londoners, I consider myself to be an immigrant to the city.  Whilst wandering its streets I can easily become aware of a richness and a depth of history that can be connected to the simplest and smallest of streets and intersections.  Just scratching the surface of a geographical location can reveal a rich tapestry of stories and characters.  Some of those stories can be connected to the seemingly simple question of, 'where does the computer come from?'

If I consider my new fangled smartphone, I can immediately ask myself a number of corollary questions.  These are: where do the chips that power it come from?  Where are they designed?  Where do they get manufactured?  Where does the software come from?   But before we begin to answer these questions there is a higher level, almost philosophical question which needs to be answered.  This is: 'where does the idea for the modern computer come from?'

This blog post is hopefully one of many which hope to unpick this precise question.  I hope to (gradually) take a series of journeys in space and time, asking seemingly obvious questions which may not have obvious answers.  This may well take me to different parts of the United Kingdom, but there is also an adventurous part of me that wishes to make a number of journeys to different parts of the world.

But before I even consider travelling anywhere outside of London, there are places in London that are really important in the history of the development of the computer, and a good number of them are only a few miles from my house.  Although the next journey will only be a short distance geographically, we will also go back in time to the nineteenth century.  This is a time when computers were people and machines were powered by steam.

My first journey (whilst carrying my smartphone) will be to an ancient part of London called Elephant and Castle.  It's a part of London that is not known for its glamour and culture of innovation and seems a long way from the conception of a modern computer.  Instead, it is a part of the city that is known for its large concrete tower blocks that were considered to be a symbol for modern urban decay.  In fact, the only times I've spent there was riding through the district on my motorbike on the way to somewhere else.

'What has this area got to do with the development of the computer?', I hear you ask.  I'm going to explain all in my next blog post.  And when I've been to Elephant and Castle, we're going to begin to travel further afield.

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