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Opinion: Our place in history

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My father-in-law also used to run simulations back in the 1970s on what turned out (after a long chat and some online digging) to be an IBM System/360 ( He didn’t personally program the machine; he wrote down instructions for the simulation on a form, another person punched the hole cards, and then the programmer ran them through the computer. The results typically came back a week or so later.

There followed a surprisingly informative chat about the history of computing covering all the usual bases: Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and early proto-computers like the Difference and Analytic Engines, and orrery devices like the Antikythera Mechanism.

They talked with pride about Lyons LEO (Lyons Electronic Office), a computer I hadn’t heard of but intend to learn more about. It was the first computer used in a commercial business setting. LEO was modelled closely on Cambridge’s EDSAC, which I do know about – that was designed by Sir Maurice Wilkes, the person whose name adorns the office building I often work in.

“Rather oddly, we need to take the magic out of computing”

They have parts and articles on LEO at The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, which has now reopened and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ll be heading down there to take a look.

We tend to think of computing as ultra-modern and, obviously, forward-thinking. Yet there is the weight of history behind our technological toys. We had just visited Enderby’s Wharf and, following a drink in Enderby House, there followed a chat about the history of underwater cabling. The first telegraph cable across the Atlantic was produced there, and much of the world’s subsea communication cables were made in the area. Alcatel Submarine Networks is still based around the corner.

It often comes as a surprise to folks that most of the internet traffic isn’t whizzing around in space, but bouncing along vast undersea cables. You can take a look at all the wires in this interactive map.

Learning how the mystical world of technology works helps us to ground (or even submerge, in this case) folks to reality. Rather oddly, we need to take the magic out of computing. To bring it away from the realm of “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and into the practical world where computing becomes a tool we can control.

Raspberry Pi

It gave me great pride to show my in-laws Raspberry Pi and explain what each constituent part was. They were amazed by how small it was, especially Raspberry Pi Zero. Having this historical perspective helped me explain to them why Raspberry Pi was so important. It continues the UK’s long tradition of designing, and building, its own computers. Raspberry Pi is vital to ensure the existence of a future generation of programmers, by putting the power of physical computing into the hands of young learners (of all ages).

Image credit: Photo of a LEO III computer circuit board, Wikipedia, geni

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