Behind the Giant Brains
February 1957 Radio &
Television News Article
Television News ran a two-part article on the state of the art of
computers in the late 1950s (this is part 2). It had only been since
ENIAC's (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) debut in
1946 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that the public
(or science community for that matter) was getting used to regularly
hearing about computers in the news. By 1957 there were many companies
popping up with electronic computer offerings. Originally the exclusive
purview of university research labs and defense installations, the
size and cost of computers was moving into the realm of affordability
by corporations that used them for accounting and bookkeeping, and
in some cases even rented idle time to outside users. Desktop PCs
and notebook computers were still the realm of crazy dreamers.
Behind the Giant Brains
Part 2. Advantages and characteristics of electronic computers,
along with a general survey of the field and some predictions of
the future effects on us all.
Last month we discussed the development of the computer and its
basic functions. Now we proceed with the advantages and a survey
of the field.
Typical of the 700 series of scientific and commercial computing
systems now being produced by International Business Machines
is the IBM 701, which was also the first of the series.
Primarily a scientific computer (the commercial members
of the family are the 702 and 705), the 701 is extremely
fast in computing speed, but limited in flexibility. since
it depends primarily on punched cards for input.
The reason computers are valuable, and increasingly
more valuable, in our time, has nothing to do with their innate
ability, which is extremely limited. It has to do with their speed,
which is fantastic, and their relative reliability.
figuring out his own pay, for example, might spend five minutes
or more multiplying rates by times, computing and subtracting deductions,
and finally arriving at his salary figure. A desk calculator permits
him to reduce this to about two minutes. A punched-card calculator
could make the same computations in a few seconds. An electronic
computer like "Univac" could do the same work in less than a tenth
of a second.
The man may tire of doing this work in an hour;
certainly by the end of a day most men would be bored beyond distraction.
Industry has discovered that most people cannot perform such repetitive
work for more than three or four hours at a stretch without a sharp
rise in the incidence of error. Machines, whether mechanical or
electronic, never tire, never need to break for coffee or lunch,
and never get bored; but after a few thousand operations, mechanical
parts begin to wear. Electronic tubes can be slammed from cut-off
to saturation millions of times a second (as they are in many electronic
computers), and still operate for months without fatigue; new developments
in electronics indicate even higher orders of efficiency. Solid-state
circuitry, such as the transistor and Sperry Rand's still-newer
"Ferractor," seem capable of almost limitless operation without
fatigue. So, just as a mechanical device is better than a human
being for repetitive tasks, an electronic device is usually better
than a mechanical one; it lasts relatively longer at a high operating
Programming a Computer
The first requirement for any job that is to be done by a computer
is that it be capable of precise description. Or, as Dr. John Mauchly,
co-inventor of ENIAC and "Univac," once remarked, "any activity
that can be precisely described can be done by a machine. You're
already well on your way to designing the machine in formulating
the description." If anyone could analyze and define the complex
operation we know as thinking, for example, the engineers could
develop a machine to do it for us. Until that time, the name "thinking
machine," or the concept of machines that think, merely wastes time.
The Burrouqhs-built UDEC (Unitized Digital Electronic Computer),
shown in the Wayne University's Computation Laboratory in
Detroit. This computer, also basically a scientific computer,
is much used by the automotive industry for engineering
Putting a job on a computer first requires a complete analysis
of the job, and an exact definition of its scope. Then every step
that a human being performs in doing the job, every decision he
makes, every value he weighs, must be translated into terms that
the computer can recognize, steps it can perform, or values it can
weigh. A complete listing of the step-by-step instructions, recognizable
to the computer's blind and dumb hardware, must be drawn up. Then
the computer can do the job.
This operation, consisting
of the analysis of the problem and the synthesis of the instruction
routine, is known as programming. As is perfectly clear, the computer's
decisions are really the programmer's decisions; its criteria for
evaluation are given to it by the programmer.
such a program can be a costly and time-consuming job. That is why
advanced programmers concentrate some of their efforts on a technique
called automatic coding, which gives the computer a library of simple,
frequently used, chunks of programs, and makes it collaborate in
the formulation of its own program of instructions.
also the reason why "repeatability" is one of the major criteria
for determining which jobs will be done by a computer. The cost
of making the program can be amortized if the job is to be repeated
over and over again. A company payroll, for example, which must
be computed every week or two, is a far more likely candidate for
mechanized or electronic treatment than is the design of the earth
satellite; but many of the myriad computations incident to the satellite
design are being done by computers simply because of time a computer
There are still some companies - but
their numbers are decreasing - who are reluctant to submit their
paperwork problems to electronic treatment, some because they do
not trust the machines, others because they are not convinced of
the economies of electronics. That computers are economical when
the job is big enough is now an established fact. Evidence of the
economies of electronic data-processing has been available ever
since the first "Univac" was bought by the Census Bureau more than
five years ago. The evidence is growing daily. And the acceptability
of electronic record-keeping has even been tested - and accepted
- in the courts.
The manufacture of electronic computers
and computing systems has become a major industry, and a hotly competitive
one, too. Led by Remington Rand's "Univac," which, started in 1949,
was the first production-designed business computer on the market;
and by International Business Machines, which has concentrated millions
of dollars in the design and production of its 700 series of computing
systems, the industry has grown in very few years to become a giant.
Some fifty companies are now manufacturing complete electronic computer
systems or major systems components such as high-speed magnetic-tape
units, magnetic-drum storage systems, instrumentation and data-presentation
systems, and so forth. Business machine manufacturers, such as Underwood,
Burrouohs, National Cash Register, and Royal-McBee, and electronics
manufacturers, such as RCA, Philco, Raytheon, and General Electric,
have all contributed to the progress. And no one can overlook the
contributions made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in basic research
and logical design of information-handling systems.
and industry are gradually accepting the machines. Not considering
the countless analogue computers in use all over the world, and
in Army, Navy, and Air Force fire-control and missiles-control equipment,
the big digital computers alone - million-dollar systems all-form
an impressive roster: Remington Rand's fifty-odd "Univacs"; International
Business Machines Corporation's seventy-odd 701's, 702's, 704's,
and 705's; Burroughs Corporation's two UDEC's and a scattered shot
of university, research center, and one-time industrial designs.
And within not too long we can expect to see RCA's "Bizmac": the
"Datamatic 1000," being built by the joint efforts of Minneapolis-Honeywell
and Raytheon; and Remington Rand's much-heralded LARC, which was
"commissioned" by the Livermore (Calif.) Atomic Research facility.
This besides the increasing flow of small systems, such
as Burrouqhs' E101, National Cash's CRC series, Underwood's "Elecom"
50, Remington Rand's "Univac" 60 and 120, IBM's CPC, 607, and 604;
and the medium-sized systems, such as the "Univac" File-Computer,
the"Elecom"125, IBM's 650, Burrouqhs' "Datatron," and many more.
These compact and efficient machines are bringing the advantages
of electronic data-processing to the small and medium-sized business.
The market is ripe for the computers, and more companies enter the
Communications is also becoming an increasingly important consideration,
and Western Union and AT&T, on the one hand, and the computer
makers on the other have cooperated on a number of plans to facilitate
the transmission of data from place to place. These plans range
from the conversion of data to telecommunications code and regular
transmission over ordinary telegraph wire, to the direct transmission
of the very-high-speed computer codes over special coaxial lines.
New markets for computing systems are being tapped by the
medium-sized general-purpose computer, typified by Underwood's
Elecom File Processor. The Elecom system reduces the contents
of 1600 conventional file drawers to less than three cubic
feet of space; savings in space such as this, added to time
saving, plus the different kinds and configurations of management
information which computers provide, have given impetus
to the furor of interest in electronic computing.
Naturally, all the activity has strained the creative facilities
of the small nucleus of scientists and engineers who first launched
the computer business such a short time ago. Every computer research
center in the country is straining at the seams, and every engineering
staff is heavily over-burdened. Computer engineers and experienced
computer programmers have, within the last two years, discovered
that they can practically write their own tickets.
research has borrowed heavily from every known science and technology,
and has managed to solve many of the most pressing problems. Frequently,
however, each solved problem turns, hydra-like, into a hundred more
questions. The name mushrooming technology is apt: computer research
has frequently tried to grow in all directions simultaneously.
Industry and business now have heavy investments in the
development of newer and more capable electronic tools, and our
economy is gradually accustoming itself to depending on them more
and more. Properly used, they can make life simpler and easier for
all of us - and more rewarding, too, as the time-consuming and deadly
dull repetitive tasks which are part of so much of our commercial
and industrial effort are given over to the machines. Their growth
was inevitable, because there were too many jobs to be done, and
too few manhours to do them in; without manpower, we must inevitably
fall back on the machine. And whether for better or for worse, automatic
controls and electronic computers are with us to stay.
the Giant Brains Part 1 appeared last month)
Posted July 16, 2013
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