This is an early version of the modern computer from 1949. Credit: Fred Lindgelbach.
In this historical photo from the U.S. space agency, an Analog Computing Machine in the Fuel Systems Building is shown in September of 1949. This is an early version of the modern computer. The device is located in the Engine Research Building at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center, Cleveland Ohio.
The National Advisory Committe on Aeronautics (NACA) was a precursor to NASA. NACA was created by Congress in 1915.
Each weekday, SPACE.com looks back at the history of spaceflight through photos (archive).
Hollywood has rarely had much faith in the future.
Just look at the sheer number of cinematic dystopias and post-apocalypses, at the deadly desert wastelands and rain-soaked urban nightmares. In the movies, tomorrow is not just another day, it’s just another step toward a world where technology consumes us and then kills us. According to the world of film, the human race is constantly on the path to being enslaved and murdered by the machines we create.
Although Hollywood’s stance on the evils of technology has softened in recent years, ‘Transcendence‘ is a throwback to a different age, when computers were not just terrifying unknowns, they were pretty much Satan. It’s a position that may seem silly in our modern, tech-infused culture, but it’s another chapter in the long history of technology trying to dominate humanity on the big screen.
Although it’s worth noting that cinema’s very first artificial intelligence was a menace concocted by a mad scientist in Fritz Lang’s legendary silent epic, ‘Metropolis,’ it took the movies a few decades to start truly fearing technology. In fact, the 1950s and 1960s often positioned science as a saving grace; the tool necessary to defeat the rampaging monster or repel the alien invasion. Shows like ‘Star Trek’ presented computers as being the most vital tool on board a starship (although it wasn’t beyond corruption) and films like ‘Forbidden Planet’ are in love with the concept of a personal robot.
Yes, this is an era where “Robby the Robot” could receive his own screen credit despite being a guy in a suit.
For a while, technology was a secret weapon, the only way to overcome the darker sciences that birthed the Cold War. There’s a strong undercurrent of optimism in many science-fiction films of the ’50s, the idea that forward-thinking will allow mankind to pull itself up by its bootstraps and put the troubled age of the atomic bomb behind us.
’2001: A Space Odyssey’ and the 1960s
There really isn’t a single point where the movies suddenly turned on technology and started painting it as the source of our inevitable and impending doom, but 1968′s ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ feels like a good place to start. Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece is entirely about technology, an examination of how our tools allowed us to evolve from primitive apes to a spacefaring people. However, the second half of the film shifts its thesis and suggests that the next stage in human evolution will come when we abandon our tools completely. After all, computers run our spaceships, but they can also go insane, shut down our life support and kill us all because we’ve given them too much power and have come to rely on them for too much.
We’re talking about HAL 9000, who isn’t just the most famous evil computer in movie history, but one of the most iconic villains in all of fiction. Impossibly efficient and soft-spoken, HAL set the template for every evil computer to come, even though the vast majority of his peers would sidestep Kubrick’s examination of technology’s role in our lives in favor of just being a bad guy. HAL 9000 is memorable because his blinking red eye and soothing, monotonous voice are creepy, but he’s vital because he represents the misguided arrogance of man. We went and made something too powerful and too efficient, a machine willing to do the unthinkable to keep its mission on track.
Colossus and the 1970s
The next great evil computer followed in 1970 and it feels like a perfectly cultivated slap to the face of the optimistic sci-fi of earlier years. ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ is the kind of science-fiction movie that could only exist after two decades of dancing around armageddon with the Soviet Union. It could only exist with Richard Nixon in the White House and the Vietnam War still raging. The ’70s may be one of the darkest periods at the movies, but ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ manages to out-grim almost every science-fiction film ever made, setting the tone for the decade to come.
When we first meet the title computer, it’s a secret military project buried deep underground. Tasked with managing the United States’ nuclear arsenal, Colossus is positioned as the perfect defense system and a game-changer in the Cold War. Of course, things quickly spiral out of control. Colossus gets too smart and quietly begins to expand its power and influence. When the Soviets reveal their supercomputer counterpart, Guardian, Colossus immediately reaches out to it and the two form an alliance with a new mission: take control of the entire planet and ensure world peace for the rest of time. Of course, ensuring world peace means holding the entire world hostage — if anyone steps out of line, force will be used until humanity complies.
Like HAL, Colossus is a machine that does its job too well. Designed to safeguard America, it steps above and beyond the call of duty and decides to safeguard the human race, just not in the way anyone hoped or intended. In the chilling final moments of the film, Colossus states that “Freedom is an illusion” and that, in time, humanity will look upon it “not only with respect and awe, but with love.” Colossus has become a dictator, an Old Testament god who punishes as much as he rewards. The film ends with humanity finally united against a common foe, but they created that foe in the first place and they designed it to be unstoppable.
Plenty of evil computers followed, but few have the lasting impact of HAL 9000 and Colossus. While ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ used their villainous computers to speak at length about man’s place on Earth and in the universe, most of the imitators borrowed their iconography and little else. Evil computers stopped being a thematic device and just started being a go-to villain.
‘The Matrix,’ Skynet and Beyond
There’s nothing wrong with the Master Control Program in ‘Tron,’ but the film doesn’t use him as anything other than a straightforward nemesis. Skynet is one of the most famous evil computers in cinematic history, but it only wipes out humanity and builds an army of time-traveling Terminators because that’s what the screenplay says it does. Like aliens and robots, there was no longer a need for the computer to be a bad guy — it was a bad guy simply because it was a computer and computers are always bad in the movies.
And that brings us to ‘The Matrix,’ which represents a radical shift in how technology was represented in the movies. Yes, the film is about the machines taking over the planet and enslaving humans, but there’s one key difference. When our heroes “jack in” to the titular virtual reality prison, they make the software work for them. Aware that they’re in an artificial world designed to distract the minds of human prisoners/batteries, these freedom fighters are essentially a badass extension of computer hackers. They break and manipulate the code of the world around them to become unstoppable warriors. Technology may have imprisoned mankind, but mankind can and will use technology to fight back.
That’s a huge change from so many of the evil computer systems that precede the Matrix. You can’t make HAL or Colossus or Skynet work for you. Those computers are untouchable. But, in ‘The Matrix,’ mankind can reclaim what he helped build. We can fight fire with fire and level the playing field. Technology may be the villain, but we can master it.
Within the narrow world of evil-computer movies, the idea of fighting technology by being one with technology felt revolutionary back in 1999, but today it feels familiar. With the rise of smartphones and tablets, technology has become so infused into our day-to-day living that it’s hard to imagine life with having a tiny computer in our pocket. We’ve embraced technology. We’ve made it our constant companion.
And that’s why ‘Transcendence,’ which sees Johnny Depp being turned into a computer and taking over the world, feels like a concept torn straight from the ’70s. We live in an age where the seemingly menacing robot in ‘Moon’ is actually a truly helpful tool and where ‘Her‘ can paint a genuinely touching portrait of a relationship between a man and an artificial intelligence. Some of the ideas on display in ‘Transcendence’ are modern, but the intent is as old fashioned as you can get.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s fine. In fact, it may be more than fine. If there’s anything evil-computer movies have taught us, it’s that our machines will take over when we least suspect it. The mere existence of a film like ‘Transcendence,’ whether it be good or bad, should remind us that we may have HAL 9000 in our pocket and not even know it. Maybe the movies were right all along.
In 1818, around the time British “Luddites” retaliated against the textile industry’s increasing use of power looms, Marry Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein, her horror parable spun from the 19th century’s plentiful scientific breakthroughs. A little under 200 years later, director (and Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer) Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with Transcendence, a thriller starring Johnny Depp as the app equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster. Different technology — same technophobia.
As Shelley predicted through her literary proxy Victor Frankenstein, humanity never lets mishaps or moral ambiguity stand in the way of innovation. Nor does Hollywood miss a moment to skewer the technological future in the name of entertainment. Transcendence adds another notch to the legacy of “Evil Computer” movies, a 2.0 sub-genre that’s made room for sci-fi handwringers and paranoid thrillers while clinging to Frankenstein‘s brand of pseudo-science. The advent of computers in the ’50s and ’60s opened new doors for the technophobes and offered a great unknown within our reach. That made it terrifying, and more importantly for filmmakers, real.
The notion of achieving “realism” in a movie like Transcendence demands little to no fanfare. In the film, the consciousness of programming wiz Will Caster (Depp) is copy/pasted on to a super computer before his body keels over from radiation poison. He is “the cloud” version of Frankenstein’s Monster: alive, mighty, and unwieldy. It’s believable science for a chilling “What if?” scenario (until Will’s invisibility requires Transcendence to divert from logic and, ultimately, coherence).
The downside of today’s touch screen tablets and 100 GB hard drives the size of a pinhead? They don’t make great villains. It was Stanley Kubrick who maximized the photogenic qualities and haunting nature of old school cabinet computers with his vision of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The glowing red eye, the soothing voice of Douglas Rain, the logical, methodical execution of orders — HAL was a God-shaped brain without the human imperfections to muck it up. (Until it developed it’s own motherboard-complex and did just that.) Kubrick’s science fiction film remains the pinnacle of “Evil Computerdom,” because HAL never pursues a wicked course of action. Blame the strains of space travel, his distrust in his human companions, or mysterious forces surrounding his ship. But don’t blame HAL. He’s just following pre-programmed orders.
Kubrick wasn’t the only provocateur questioning the on-going entanglement of computers and human existence. A few short months before 2001, Mathematician Laurence N. Wolfe penned the story for “Ultimate Computer,” an episode of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series that pit Kirk, Spock and his crew against a A.I.-run Enterprise. Even on stardate 4729.4, no one can imagine a computer system prioritizing a mission over human life. Except Spock, who finds the entire throw down perfectly logical.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) was one of the final hurrahs for bare bones, science-minded Evil Computer movies before Hollywood witnessed the blockbuster power of Jaws and demanded an immediate sea change. In tune to the paranoia thrillers of the era, Joseph Sargent’s minimalist thriller envisions a government backed supercomputer blowing past the technological singularity — so smart, its artificial intelligence eclipses anything a human could feed it. Meant to control defense missiles and bring about world peace, the “Colossus” computer seizes available power and rules humanity with an iron fist. Sargent had the luxury of filming a talky drama where potential could be a scare tactic. Rarely do we see Colossus display his pervasive powers, but we know he could at any moment.
The Seventies and Eighties turned turned Evil Computers into cyber-mustache-twirling villains. In Demon Seed (1977), the Proteus IV computer blackmails and impregnates Julie Christie in hopes of becoming human, while Tron (1982) imagined the power-hungry Master Control Program as a floating, red, pentagonal dictator. Capitalizing on video game fads, War Games (1983) featured a PVP deathmatch between a missile command interface and Matthew Broderick. One month later, the Man of Steel battled programmed drones and flailing USB cables in the demented Superman III. It would take a few years for personal computers to become a household staple, but by the end of the ’80s, everyone in America knew their potential — for evil!
Despite the technology becoming more miniscule and the tendrils clinging to data less tangible, contemporary Evil Computer movies yearn for a taste of that Frankenstein magic. Transcendence can’t settle for Colossus‘ subversive nihilism — the movie still needs a “bad guy.” Same with its predecessors; films like The Matrix, Resident Evil, Eagle Eye, and even Rob Cohen’s silly Evil Computer Pilots action flick Stealth depict widespread infiltration as a problem with a physical proxy worthy of punching in the face. With modern Hollywood inflating even the tiniest thematic detail, “Evil Computers” bump Kubrick co.’s nightmares of “Computers That Are Evil” out of the conversation. To unearth true technophobia from within, try today’s headlines.
A Univac mainframe, early hard disk drives, Zork, and an Altair 8800 at VCF East 2014.
What do you get when you combine several hundred serious geeks, two large rooms, five decades’ worth of vintage computers, and a weekend in New Jersey? The Vintage Computer Festival East, of course!
The ninth running of the VCF East was held April 4-7 at the InfoAge Science Center in Wall Township, New Jersey. Hosted by MARCH, the MidAtlantic Retro Computing Hobbyists group, the 2014 show saw the largest number of exhibitors and attendees for a VCF East yet, with exhibit halls expanded from one to two rooms and three days of lectures and seminars available for attendees. The show featured a wide range of computing history, from a seminal, room-size UNIVAC computer, through the DEC, Prime and HP minicomputer era, to the workstations and home computers of the 1970s and ’80s.
Univac nameplate, Okidata printer, DEC PDP-8 and a Wang “desktop” computer.
Interest in the computers of yesteryear continues to increase, and is reflected in a growing number of vintage computing events around the country. From the original Vintage Computer Festival back in 1997 — and even before that, KansasFest in 1989 — intelligent, graying, sometimes portly computer fans and their families have grown this market to multiple shows worldwide requiring 1.21 gigawatts of electricity each year to power the exhibits. The VCF is a hands-on exhibition, with (where possible) working systems that attendees can interact with or observe in action.
Apple made a good showing at VCF East, starting with a number of Apple 1s. MARCH has a Mimeo replica in its permanent collection, and one exhibitor displayed an original model (signed by Woz) running Zork from a CompactFlash drive! How cool is that? There were a few Apple IIs, a working Lisa 2 and several tables of Macinti. My own Vintage Mac Museum was one of the exhibitors, and I showed off an SE/30, PowerBook 170 and Color Classic, along with a Picasso Dealer Sign.
An Apple 1 plays Zork; vintage Macs, Picasso dealer sign, and Mac 512k with clear sides.
Across from my table was a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer (compact and portable for its day), equipped with a paper punch-card reader. The punch-card reader was interfaced both to the VAX and a Windows laptop via a serial cable (and specialized interface), allowing punch-card programs to be archived direct to disk. Towards the end of the show one MARCH member stopped over with a stack of punch-cards and proceeded to do a paper to USB flash drive conversion. Digital storage-wise, that must be one of the greatest generational leaps in history!
But returning to Commodore for a moment: Apple fans may be loud and many in number, but Commodore diehards are among the most loyal, dedicated worshipers of old silicon that exist. Many original company engineers were exhibiting and speaking at the show, and one exhibitor flew in from Switzerland to show off a number of rare systems and prototypes which never saw the light of day. A network of Commodore 64s was setup playing space shoot-up games, the venerable PET made several appearances, and every variant of Amiga possible was on display.
A Commodore 64 computer network, and classic Commodore PET.
In fact, a new version of the AmigaOS – that runs, ironically, on old Apple PowerPC hardware – is still being developed to this day. And I thought Cult of Mac members were devoted!
Got the vintage computing bug? Next up is the VCF Southeast 2.0, happening May 3-4 in Roswell, Georgia; after that, KansasFest episode 26 happens from July 22-27 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Adam Rosen is an IT consultant specializing in Apple Macintosh systems new and old. He lives in Boston with two cats and too many possessions. In addition to membership in the Cult of Mac, Adam has written for Low End Mac and is curator of the Vintage Mac Museum. He also enjoys a good libation.
For the past 13 years, computer users throughout the globe have found “Bliss” in the same spot — a hillside of vivid, velvety grass etched against a Crayola blue sky brushed with clouds.
It’s estimated a billion people from heads of state to scientists to poor shopkeepers in Third World countries have gazed into that storybook spot, so simple and vibrant in its imagery that many assume it exists only on a digital file at Microsoft.
The default wallpaper for Windows XP, “Bliss,” as it has been dubbed by Microsoft, is a real photograph of a real place. And it is not in Ireland or New Zealand as some curious speculators online have guessed.
The photo was taken in Sonoma County, just west of the old Stornetta’s Dairy along a treacherous stretch of Highway 121 south of Sonoma. And it was snapped by Charles O’Rear, a former National Geographic photographer who was trolling for green hillsides on a January day in 1998 and struck gold with one lucky shot.
“Bliss” is widely regarded as the most viewed picture in the world — up there with such iconic photos as the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima — considering how many computers worldwide ran on Windows XP and how long the operating system has hung around in common use.
“If you have to be known for a photograph, I guess now it ought to be this one,” said O’Rear, 73, who lives in St. Helena and now specializes in taking Wine Country photos. “There’s nothing unique about it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Renewed attention was drawn to “Bliss” this week when Microsoft suspended tech support for Windows XP, even though an estimated 30 percent of computers in the world still depend on the 13-year-old system. O’Rear, enlisted as an ambassador for the dying system, has been fielding a flood of media queries and just got back from Australia, where Microsoft sent him on a press tour for what amounts to a very long good-bye to Bliss.
In the digital world Windows XP is a dinosaur, launched in the sensitive weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with an uplifting ad campaign featuring a regular guy soaring like Superman in the skies to a soundtrack of Madonna singing “Ray of Light.”
O’Rear was on his way to San Francisco to visit his girlfriend, now his wife, Daphne Larkin, when he happened upon an emerald green hillside bathed in sunlight on the windy highway that hugs the hills between Napa and Arnold Drive.
He pulled over, set up his large format Mamiya RZ67 camera, and took four frames on Fuji film hoping to capture that perfect convergence of color, light and clouds before it vanished.
“A storm had just come through so we had this great visibility,” he recalled. “Plus, we had a few white clouds that just happened to be drifting by. The brilliant colors, the blue skies, the white clouds, the clarity. Those factors were enough for me to stop and take a picture.”
He submitted the photos to Corbis Images, a stock photo service in Seattle owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It was at least a year or two later before the software giant approached him with an offer to buy the rights to the frame.
He’s legally prohibited from disclosing the price but said, “I’m still saying ‘Thank you Microsoft’ and ‘Thank you Corbis.’”
Over the years “Bliss” has became more than a nondescript backdrop for computer icons. It’s gained a cult status among digital geeks and artists who can’t help but mess with it. A Google search of “Bliss” returns multiple artistic re-imaginings, imitations and parodies. Everything from Ron Burgundy the Anchorman to a full Spartan Army to Dr. Who’s Telis time machine have been Photoshopped into that bucolic Sonoma hillside, which likely will remain a meme long after its days as a PC wallpaper have disappeared.
Some people have alleged the photo is digitally enhanced. No so, said O’Rear. “That was before flat-screen monitors. They might have dialed it up a bit but not very much. I have several other frames taken at the same time. I put them on the light table and it’s virtually the same color as what I see on the monitor.”
Anyone driving along Highway 121/12 looking for the spot now would likely drive right past. In 2001 it was leased to Domaine Carneros, which covered the hill with 140 acres of chardonnay and pinot noir vines. The Napa sparkling wine house bought the property from the Stornetta family several years ago.
Domaine Carneros CEO and winemaker Eileen Crane fondly remembers driving past that peaceful hillside years ago when it was dotted with “golden Guernseys.” She said she secretly hoped at the time that no one would ever buy it for development.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” she said of the vineyard, which the winery has christened La Terre Promise or The Promised Land. A premium pinot sold only at the winery is single sourced from the hillside otherwise known as Bliss.
It’s impossible to quantify how many people have seen the photo. But a figure of more than a billion is not an exaggeration, said O’Rear. “The fact that Microsoft says Windows XP was on 450 million computers and if only two people looked at each screen, that’s nearly a billion there.”
A spokeswoman for Microsoft on Friday said the company does not “break out figures for Windows users.”
He said he’s spotted it on screens photographed in the situation room at the White House, in the Kremlin and recently in the control room of a power station in Korea.
Over 25 years O’Rear, who said he retains the right to reproduce “Bliss,” traveled the world to exotic spots from Indonesia to Siberia for National Geographic and even took a cover photo holding a microchip in his own hand. But it’s a common hillside 25 miles from home that will remain his signature shot. He said he’s OK with that.
“Rolling green hills and blue sky have been around forever. It’s nothing new,” he conceded. “But it sets a tone that says, ‘This is as close to Nirvana as you’re going to get.’ And if that’s so, the closest thing to Nirvana on the planet is right here in Sonoma County.”
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF., March 25, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — The Computer History Museum (CHM) announced today that it has, with permission from Microsoft Corporation, made available original source code for two historic programs: MS-DOS, the 1982 “Disk Operating System” for IBM-compatible personal computers, and Word for Windows, the 1990 Windows-based version of their word processor.
IBM went outside the company for many hardware and software components of their 1981 personal computer. Though most vendors were kept in the dark about the project, code-named “Chess,” IBM developed a unique relationship between their Boca Raton-based team and Microsoft, then a small company based in Seattle.
Microsoft, which was providing the BASIC language interpreter, agreed to also supply an operating system. Without their own operating system already in place, they licensed a product from nearby Seattle Computer Products and worked closely with IBM to make the changes they wanted. It shipped as “PC-DOS” for IBM and “MS-DOS” for other PC manufacturers. We are today releasing the source code of MS-DOS version 1.1 from 1982, and of version 2.0 from 1983.
“Version 1.1 fits an entire operating system – limited as it was – into only 12K bytes of memory, which is tiny compared to today’s software,” said Len Shustek, Museum Chairman.
Microsoft’s DOS-based version of Word, first released in 1983, was not a success against the dominant word processor of that era, WordPerfect. The 1989 release of Word for Windows changed all that: within four years it was generating over half the worldwide word processing market revenue. It was a remarkable marketing and engineering achievement. We are today revealing the technical magic by releasing the source code to version 1.1a of Word for Windows.
“MS-DOS and Word for Windows built the foundation for Microsoft’s success in the technology industry,” said Roy Levin, distinguished engineer and managing director, Microsoft Research. “By contributing these source codes to the Computer History Museum archives, Microsoft is making these historic systems from the early era of personal computing available to the community for historical and technical scholarship.”
“We think preserving historic source code like these two programs is key to understanding how software has evolved from primitive roots to become a crucial part of our civilization,” says Shustek.
For a blog posting surrounding the release of this source code, please visit: Microsoft DOS and MS Word for Windows.
For other releases in the historic source code series, see:
The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California is a nonprofit organization with a four-decade history as the world’s leading institution exploring the history of computing and its ongoing impact on society. The Museum is dedicated to the preservation and celebration of computer history, and is home to the largest international collection of computing artifacts in the world, encompassing computer hardware, software, documentation, ephemera, photographs and moving images.
The Museum brings computer history to life through large-scale exhibits, an acclaimed speaker series, a dynamic website, docent-led tours and an award-winning education program. The Museum’s signature exhibition is “Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing,” described by USA Today as “the Valley’s answer to the Smithsonian.” Other current exhibits include “Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2,” and “Going Places: The History of Google Maps with Street View.”
For more information and updates, call (650) 810-1059, visit www.computerhistory.org, check us out on Facebook, and follow us @computerhistory on Twitter.
On April 7, 1964, IBM unveiled a new generation of electronic computing equipment”the most important product announcement in the company’s history.”
Combining microelectronic technology to produce operating speeds measured in just billionths of a second, the IBM System/360 boasted significant advances in computer organization.
But it very well could have bankrupt the company if the mainframe weren’t so successful.
Helmed by chief architect Gene Amdahl and project manager Fred Brooks, with the help of John Opel, the project took four years, and $5 billion ($24 billion by today’s standards) to develop. But IBM Board Chairman Thomas Watson Jr.’s bet paid off: the System/360 has since been ranked one of the major business accomplishments in American history, alongside Ford’s Model T and Boeing’s 707.
“System/360 represents a sharp departure from concepts of the past in designing and building computers. [It] is the first time IBM has redesigned the basic internal architecture of its computers in a decade,” Watson said during a 1964 press conference. “The result will be more computer productivity at a lower cost than ever before. This is the beginning of a new generationnot only of computersbut of their application in business, science and government.”
Available for monthly rental, the machine cost $2,700 for a basic configuration, or $115,000 for a large multisystem configuration. Comparable gadgets, IBM said at the time, ranged from $133,000 to $5.5 million.
Built to perform information-handling jobs for different types of applications, the System/360 appears skimpy by modern standards: internal processing power between 1 and 50MHz, with a minimum of 8KB of memory for the smaller model and 8MB in the largest version.
But IBM’s mainframe tore down the wall between commercial and scientific use, allowing the processing of business and scientific problems, or a combination of the two. It also allowed for remote functionality and solid logic technology.
“The mainframe is central to the economy of the world. And we continue to reinvent and transform the platform to meet the future needs of our clients and of the broader economy,” Pat Toole, IBM general manager of System Z, said in a statement. “IBM not only acknowledges a key milestone but anticipates future mainframe innovations that will continue to evolve to support the increasingly digital world we live in.”
As Toole pointed out, 70 percent of today’s enterprise data lives on the mainframe, and, going forward, she said the technology will continue to support cloud computing environments and big analytics.
To commemorate today’s golden anniversary, the Computer History Museum is displaying photos and articles about the IBM System/360, available for viewing online.
Seventy years ago, the first programmable computer in the United States began humming away in a basement lab where the Maxwell-Dworkin building stands today.
The Harvard Mark I was of “light weight, trim appearance,” according to a brochure published a year later, in 1945. Designed by Harvard mathematician Howard Aiken (1900-1973) and built by IBM, it was 51 feet long, 8 feet high, and weighed 10,000 pounds. The machine contained thousands of gears, switches, and control circuits, and was driven by an electric motor that turned a 50-foot shaft.
In May 1944, the Mark I was put to work with the Navy, performing basic mathematical functions to support the war effort. Among its tasks: calculating Bessel functions used in designing torpedo shapes, which led to the nickname “Bessie,” according to Juan Andres Leon, a former doctoral student in Harvard’s History of Science Department who conducted research on the machine.
Leon’s work, together with that of Laura Neuhaus, a former curatorial fellow in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and several others, is on display at the Science Center in the first update of the Mark I exhibit in 17 years. A section of the machine is also part of the show.
The Mark I had a long life by today’s standards, running for 15 years. It was broken up after being decommissioned in 1959. Large pieces went on display at the Science Center and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., with smaller pieces sent to other museums and to IBM.
The previous Science Center exhibition of the Mark I was completed in the mid-1990s, Leon said, and reflected its times. In the mid-1990s, personal computers ran Windows 95, hardware speed was critical, and the Web was still taking shape. As a consequence, Leon said, the importance of the Mark I’s software wasn’t emphasized, and neither, Neuhaus added, were the contributions of Grace Hopper, a Navy officer and computer scientist who was the machine’s first programmer.
An enthusiastic crowd jammed the hallway around the downsized machine — about half of the original is on display — during a ceremony last week to launch the new exhibit. Speakers including Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Cherry Murray, and Pellegrino University Professor Peter Galison, the faculty director of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, talked about the Mark I’s significance.
The highlight of the event came when the machine was switched on, filling the Science Center’s ground floor lobby with a hum. Though the Mark I works mechanically, it wasn’t performing calculations, Neuhaus said, in part because the machine itself is incomplete and in part because the programming expertise needed to run it has faded with time.
For Neuhaus, one of the most interesting aspects of the Mark I is the effect it has had on the language of today’s programmers. Terms such as “patch” and “loop” are often thought of as metaphorical but are actually rooted in the machine’s programming, which was accomplished through holes punched in paper tape. “Patches” were physical patches covering holes in the tape; a “loop” was formed by attaching the ends of the tape together.
“For me, the most exciting thing is tracing the etymology of language in the tech industry,” Neuhaus said. “I’m looking at the first software ever written and there’s patches on it.”
Even the term “bug” has ties to the Mark series. After tracing a problem in the Mark II to a moth that got crushed in a relay, Hopper claimed to have de-bugged the machine.
In her comments, Murray said that Harvard’s current computer scientists are carrying on a long tradition of pushing the frontiers of machine learning and artificial intelligence, with the broader aim of making a positive impact on every aspect of society.
Smith, himself a computer scientist and the Finley Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said he’s amazed at how much complexity has resulted from the building blocks of simple on-off switches. Smith said there’s a lesson in the fact that Aiken, though a mathematical wizard, didn’t believe that computers would ever be widespread. Smith asked members of the audience to think about present-day echoes.
“Where is the bug in our thinking today?” Smith asked. “What are we discounting today that will be important in the next 70 years?”
Microsoft today released the source code for MS DOS 1.1 and 2.0 as well as Microsoft Word for Windows 1.1a. With the help of the Computer History Museum, the move means means this code is now available to the public.
MS-DOS was a renamed version of 86-DOS, written by Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products and initially released in August 1980. Microsoft hired Paterson in May 1981, bought 86-DOS 1.10 for $75,000 in July, and renamed it MS-DOS. Microsoft released the first DOS-based version of Microsoft Word in 1983. In 1989, Word for Windows arrived, and within four years was generating over half the revenue of the worldwide word-processing market.
“Thanks to the Computer History Museum, these important pieces of source code will be preserved and made available to the community for historical and technical scholarship,” Microsoft Research managing director Roy Levin said today. We agree, although it’s not clear what took so long.
This is an early version of the modern computer from 1949.Credit: Fred Lindgelbach. In this historical photo from the U.S. space agency, an Analog Computing Machine in the Fuel Systems Building is shown in September of 1949. This is an early version of the modern computer. The device is located in the Engine Research Building […]
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