Behind the Giant Brains (Part
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.
See all available vintage
Radio News articles.
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
A man 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 efficiency.
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 problems.
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.
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.
Drawing up 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.
It is 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
The Field Today
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.
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.
Business 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 field
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
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
Computer 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
the Giant Brains Part 1 appeared last month)
Posted July 16, 2013
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