Behind the Giant Brains
January 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 1). 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
By Frank Leary
Part 1. Historical development and principles
of electronic computers. Here's the story about the devices that
are now beginning to shape our lives. To be concluded next month.
On a raw afternoon in February, 1946, officials of the Federal government
and the University of Pennsylvania, several luminaries of the world
of science, and representatives of the press met at the Moore School
of Electrical Engineering, on the University of Pennsylvania campus
The IBM 650 magnetic drum data processing machine built
tor commercial use. This machine is designed to meet the
accounting and computing needs in areas between those now
served by the company's very large and its smaller machines.
Norbert Wiener, the MIT math professor
who was to start a whole cross-section of America using the term
cybernetics, arrived characteristically without an overcoat. Others
parked their wraps and were shown into a large room at the back
of the building. Racks of electronic apparatus surrounded them.
They were told they were inside an electronic calculator which could
solve complex differential equations - such as an equation in external
ballistics - faster than most people could state the problem. Some
were excited, others politely interested, a few were bored. They
watched the electronic gadgetry being put through its paces: punched
cards with problem data were fed in, cards with answers were punched
seconds later. Someone checked the results; they were correct. The
press asked some questions, got some answers, and then everybody
went to dinner.
These men had been summoned to witness the
first public showing of the Moore School's electronic numerical
integrator and calculator (a mouthful of description shortened by
Army Ordnance officers into the acronym ENIAC). It was not an occasion
that seemed particularly world-shaking, but the outgrowths from
this machine have been giving the world its share of shudders ever
The whole pattern of our existence being shaped by
electronic computers, or "giant brains," to use Edmund . Berkeley's
much abused term. These computers can not only solve complex problems
in advanced mathematics, but models now in existence can handle
all kinds of information, from a payroll to the Bible. One, the
Remington Rand "Univac," a lineal descendant of the ENIAC, was recently
used by the Thomas J. Nelson Publishing Company to compile the Concordance
for the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Other systems
are gradually infiltrating our daily lives: our social security
accounts, our insurance policy information, our income tax records,
all are being converted onto files of magnetic tapes, which can
be swiftly and efficiently processed by these automatic electronic
The Monster on the Second Floor
The reactions of people associated with them are as varied as opinions
about the proper proportions for a martini. Some people - notably
the designers - feel that these computers are the greatest boon
to mankind since the invention of the round wheel. Others, seeing
phantoms of technological displacement, redeployment, and unemployment,
regard the introduction of electronic brains into everyday affairs
with great distaste. More considered opinions place atomic energy
and automatic computers on the same level, as the two most important
technological advances to have come out of the War.
All computing and processing of information in the Harvard
Mark I was performed by means of high-speed relays. This
is what the calculator looks like today, after some modifications
have been made.
New York office of one of the major manufacturers of the giant electronic
computers, a system has been set up to operate as a computing service
bureau on the second floor of the building. One of the old-line
employees of this corporation refers consistently to the machine
as "the monster on the second floor." No amount of persuasion, exhortation,
or scientific evidence can convince him that it is anything but
first of all these electronic "monsters" - no more monster than
the thermostat that turns your heat on and off - has been working
around the clock at Aberdeen Proving Grounds ever since it was moved
there in 1948. Another of the computer industry's grandparents sits
where it was first built, at Harvard. This is the famous Aiken Relay
Calculator Mark I, first of all truly automatic computers, built
in 1944 by Harvard Computation Laboratories for the U. S. Navy.
The two of them, different in concept but complementary to each
other, have sired many progeny.
Mark I was not electronic;
ENIAC was. Mark I was automatically sequenced, which is to say,
it was capable of automatically performing a series of instructions
fed to it from punched paper tape; ENIAC recognized patterns of
instructions set up in advance on wiring panels. Modern computers,
which are generally both electronic and automatically sequenced,
are logically descended from both "old" designs.
Mark I and ENIAC were both "war babies." Army Ordnance, trying to
supply complete ballistic data on new weapons to Army field commanders,
had pricked up its ears when John W. Mauchly, then an assistant
professor on the staff of the Moore School, and now an executive
of Remington Rand's "Univac" division, had suggested an electronic
calculator as a possible solution; Ordnance funds sponsored the
construction of ENIAC. Mark I, designed by Harvard's Howard Aiken
and built by his staff in cooperation with International Business
Machines Corporation, was fostered by the similar needs of Navy
From these original wartime projects have sprung
the burgeoning family of electronic digital computers - computers
which recognize and electronically process actual numbers, or alphabetic
characters, and not varying voltage levels, or turns of a cogwheel
or gear or axle. The latter, called analogue computers, form a completely
different family, with a somewhat similar heritage, but with different
parents, and different uses.
The Tributary Currents
Several separate streams have joined to form the torrent of activity
that the computer industry has become.
The ENIAC as it looked when it was installed at the Moore
School of the University of Pennsylvania. The hundreds of
cables, carrying control and information signals from one
part of the computer to another, all had to be set up before
a problem was run. Newer computers are somewhat more sophisticated,
can vary operations through a stored program of instructions.
The principal headwater
is an old and familiar one: man has always sought ways of harnessing
nature to serve him. Mathematicians are no exception, and creative
mathematicians especially have frequently bridled at the plain stickwork
involved in the rigorous proofs of their theories. Pascal, Leibnitz,
Gauss, and Maxwell are among the great scientists who designed and
built mechanical aids to calculation. These machines were of some
help to their creators, but of little general use.
stream first was struck by a watchmaker named Jacques de Vaucanson,
who, in 1741, invented a delicate automatic loom for weaving figured
silks. The designs in the silks were established by patterns of
holes punched in a metal drum; the holes controlled the raising
and lowering of the treadles. In 1804, Joseph Marie Jacquard adapted
the idea to a much larger scale for weaving tapestries, rugs, and
other heavier materials. To increase the utility of his automatic
loom, Jacquard used as controls punched sheets of stiff paper which
could be changed fairly easily. Within eight years, eleven thousand
Jacquard looms had been placed in operation in France.
name of Charles Babbage, one of the two men in history ever to hold
the Lucasian professorship of mathematics at Oxford University,
is a revered one in the computer field, for Babbage was the first
to envisage a truly general-purpose computer. He also merged the
de Vaucanson-Jacquard idea, of storing information as punched holes
in a sheet of paper, with the idea of mechanical computation.
Babbage began work on what he called a difference engine
in 1823. The purpose of the engine was to provide mechanical assistance
for advanced mathematical computations. The British government offered
some financial support to his project, and he was able to draw up
working diagrams and specifications. But this was the era of Watt's
steam engine, when the criterion for the fit of a piston within
the cylinder wall was that a thin sixpence could just be slipped
between the two; built to such tolerances, Babbage's difference
engine, and his later analytical engine, could never be made to
produce reliable answers. Eventually the government withdrew support,
and the Babbage designs became historical curiosities. Many of today's
mechanical and electronic calculators, however, possess a logical
organization remarkably similar to the analytical engine which was
the triumph and despair of Babbage's life.
the Census Bureau
Mechanical tabulators, capable of simultaneously registering horizontal
and vertical sums, were the next important development. These grew,
quite naturally, out of the needs for statistical analysis, and
many of the most important advances were made in the U. S. Bureau
of the Census. For example, Charles Seaton, who was Chief Clerk
of the Census Bureau, invented such a mechanical tabulator in 1872.
And in 1887, Dr. Herman Hollerith, then chief of Census' tabulation
section, further adapted the Jacquard punched-paper control system
to the accumulation of statistical data. This was a most important
stride in mechanical computation, for it introduced into a working
system the concept of mechanically stored (remembered) information,
which could be used for many calculations or tabulations without
the necessity for re-entering the data from a keyboard. The Hollerith
equipment was one of the ancestors of familiar punched-card equipment.
The accumulator of Charles Babbage's difference engine,
from an old woodcut.
During the eleventh decennial census (1890), another member
of the Census Bureau staff, James Powers, developed another kind
of mechanical tabulator which also used punched cards. The Hollerith
holes were rectangular; the Powers holes were round. Both types
of equipment were used by Census for years - are still in use, in
fact. Both men left the Census Bureau to merchandise their ideas
in the commercial world. Descended from the Powers' idea are the
familiar Remington Rand and Underwood-Samas round-hole cards, while
is found in the equipment of International
Business Machines, Compagnie des Machines Bull, and others.
Just prior to Hollerith's and Powers' inventions, a host of
mechanical "arithmetic engines," which we would today call adding
machines, were patented. One of the most important of these was
the 1885 adding machine of William Seward Burroughs, probably the
first to be designed for production in quantity. These machines
were the ancestors of the modern desk calculator, now emerging,
complete with high-speed electronic and magnetic components, as
a serious contender for the attention of the computing public.
For years following the invention of the various kinds of
punched-card tabulators and calculators - until about the time of
World War II - these machines were the highest order of mechanical
aids to computation. But the third major contributory stream actually
had appeared as early as December, 1919, when a paper describing
an electronic "trigger circuit" that could be used for counting
pulses of electrical energy was published in the first volume of
Radio Review. The authors of the paper were W. H. Eccles and F.
W. Jordan; the Eccles-Jordan trigger circuit, and its many modifications
- multivibrators, one-shot trigger pairs, and so forth - all of
which are familiar to the world of television and radar, are foundation
blocks of the electronic digital computer as we know it.
While punched-card calculators were growing larger and more
complex, a small group of scientific minds saw the coming of an
era when mechanical devices, however fast, efficient, and succinct,
would not be capable of keeping pace with the need for information.
All over the country, the capacity of punched-card calculator centers
was exceeded and expanded and exceeded again. In the late thirties,
men in widely separated activities began asking "can we apply electronics
to this problem?" And more and more frequently, the answer was "yes."
The Analogue Computers
A group of scientists and engineers, sparked by the physicist Vannevar
Bush, had meanwhile been pursuing another tack. During the twenties,
Bush had merged an idea of Lord Kelvin's, some of Babbage's concepts,
and the then-recent development of mechanical torque amplifiers.
From this merger, he developed a reliable mechanical device for
the rapid and automatic analysis of differential equations. Several
of these differential analyzers were built from his plans at various
universities in this country and Europe. They were not digital calculators
as envisaged by Babbage and as built by the various punched-card
manufacturers. They formed a major group within the completely different
class of analogue computers.
Punched paper tape. such as that which is shown in the photo
in use in the famous Bell Relay Calculator, was the source
of Harvard Mark I's instructions and programming.
Analogue computers derive their
name from the fact that they compute by mechanical or electrical
analogy. The turning of a gear, or a set of gears, through part
or all of a revolution may be used to represent, by analogy, a parameter
in an equation. Or the movement of a diagonal slide in a rectangular
frame may represent another parameter. Various torque converters
or torque amplifiers perform operations analogous to mathematical
A simple analogue computer could be made from
two circular gears in the ratio of 3.1416 to 1. Turning the larger
gear would cause the smaller to be displaced 3.1416 times as much.
If angular displacements were shown on a pair of calibrated dials,
one could multiply by pi (approximately) on this simple device.
Numerical values for a diameter could be entered on the larger dial,
and instantaneous approximate values for the circumference would
be read on the dial for the smaller gear. (Such a device would,
of necessity, produce approximations, since pi cannot be exactly
represented by a ratio of integers.)
Similarly, a large
variable resistor might be wound on a card shaped like a sine curve,
instead of being wound on the usual rectangular card. The angle
of displacement of the wiper arm would then be a parameter in the
equation; the voltage applied across the resistor would be multiplied
by the sine of this angle when tapped by the wiper. Another wiper
90° displaced from the first would simultaneously produce a voltage
analogous to the cosine of the same angle.
such mechanical and electrical analogies could be assembled into
computing systems which represented the equations of external ballistics,
for example. Such analogue computers were much used during the second
World War for artillery fire-control, in conjunction with radar
tracking systems. Bell Laboratories, Sperry, Westinghouse, and General
Electric, among others, all built analogue computers for the Army
and Navy. More recently, such systems have been used in industry
for a.c. network analysis, for the analysis and synthesis of gas
distribution systems, and in many instances for the simulation of
fairly complex machinery or systems (such as missile systems or
ultra-thin high-speed propeller blades) prior to their design and
construction. Because they work so readily with physical measuring
and instrumentation apparatus, and with mechanical or electronic
controls, they are also natural choices for the needs of industrial
Analogue computers are eminently suited for representing involved
equations in physical form. In design work, they permit the varying
of parameters by analogy, to determine the effect of such variations
on the system as a whole. As control systems for industrial automation,
they can adjust valves, speed up or slow down transfer systems,
and so forth, as required by the standards of the output product
Herman Hollerith's electric counting machine as used in
the 1890 census. The accumulated and tabulated results were
presented on the counter dials, and had to be copied off
Analogue computers possess two inherent limitations.
First, they cannot easily be used for dissimilar problems. The computer
itself is a mechanical or electrical analogy to an equation; changing
the equation means changing the hardware of the computer. Second,
they are generally only precise to two or three significant figures,
depending on the fineness of construction; and their accuracy depends,
not only on the accuracy of the input data, but also on the instruments
which present the answers (calibrated oscilloscopes, meters, counters,
etc.) , and on the subjective "feel" of the operator who inspects
A digital computer can process ordinary
numbers or alphabetic characters without any trouble at all. It
can handle continuously variable data only by "digitalizing" it
- sampling the value of the continuous function at regular time
intervals and giving it a numerical representation - and then applying
the methods of numerical analysis; but it can generally do far more
types of work than an analogue computer, and, once the information
is translated into discrete digital form, it never loses a decimal
point of precision. Furthermore, the accuracy of the digital computer's
work can easily be checked by inverse operations (proving addition
by subtraction, etc.), by identical parallel operations compared
for identical answers, or by many other means.
digital computing systems are far simpler than analogue networks
(although some of them are much larger); they can basically only
add, compare, and discriminate between relative magnitudes, store
(or remember, if you prefer) information, and shift the information
around. Mostly they subtract by inverse addition, multiply by repeated
addition, and divide by alternately performing repeated additions
and subtractions. Depending on their discriminatory abilities, they
can select paths of action, or sort information, or start (or stop)
a process. They can, in other words, be empowered to make decisions.
Note well: be empowered to make decisions. The two most
mystifying things, to many people outside the field, are that these
machines seem to make decisions, and seem to remember information.
Neither one is at all mysterious.
How Machines Remember
Memory, for example, as a machine function, is quite familiar to
everyone. A thermostat remembers two things: you tell it how hot
you want it to be by setting the value on a dial (which at the same
time sets a control contact), and a bimetallic thermometer tells
it how hot it actually is. When the thermometer tells it that the
temperature has fallen below your setting, it turns on the heat.
The first die-set punch, developed by Powers for the census
of 1910. The operator set up on the keyboard all the values
to be punched; she then used the knee-treadle to gang-punch
A wall switch remembers that you turned it on, but the little
button on a flashlight, which must be locked to remain on, does
not; as soon as you release it, it "forgets" it was on and goes
out. An annoying characteristic of certain cathode-ray tube phosphors,
for television purposes, is persistence; this is nothing more than
the phosphor's "remembering" the current which excited it into phosphorescence,
and continuing to glow after the current is gone. The characteristic
was used to advantage in a type of computer memory.
tape or wire, or an acetate or vinyl disc, remembers the information
put on it for a long time. Materials which are truly elastic cannot
remember; they snap back into their normal state too readily. Brittle
materials (such as glass after its elasticity has been exceeded)
are crude memories only, because they cannot be restored. The most
concentrated effort in developing memory systems has been expended
on hysteretic materials - materials which exhibit a time-lag between
the removal of a stimulus and the restoration of the material to
its normal state. Magnetic materials are an ideal example; after
the magnetizing current is removed, a certain amount of magnetism
remains in the material (for a period of time depending on the material).
And much of the most fruitful effort in designing and building computer
memories has been devoted to magnetics research.
How Machines Make Decisions
The way the
thermostat "decides" to turn on the heat is an excellent illustration
of the type of decision-making common in the computing machine.
When the actual temperature sensed by the thermometer falls below
the setting of the contact, the heat comes on. Now the thermostat
setting is an artificially established control point, set by a human
operator; the control contact is moved closer to or farther from
the contact on the bi-metallic thermometer as the operator decides
the temperature should be higher or lower. The ability to reach
a decision to turn heat on or off is built into the thermostat,
in that electrical power connects through the two contacts to start
a blower motor or automatic stoker.
A computer, which can
compare quantities and discriminate between them, can choose one
of several paths of action in terms of the relative magnitudes of
the two quantities. The ability to select the alternate routes is
built into the computer; the criteria for the selection are given
to it by the controlling human agency. The giant brain and the simple
thermostat both have the same degree of mindless unawareness of
what they are doing.
In making its decisions, the computer
merely transfers control when one quantity equals another, exceeds
another, becomes less than another, or goes through zero. If control
is transferred to an instruction which tells it to "add," it adds;
"stop," it stops; "rewind tape," it rewinds tape, and so forth.
A set of values can be given to the computer, and its comparison
circuits can check each one of the set, making several "yes-no"
choices which lead to a compound conclusion. In making these choices,
the computer actually seems to be exhibiting a complex type of judgment,
but each single decision remains a "yes" or "no" choice. The computer's
secret is that it handles the most complicated problem in the world
in the simplest and most primitive steps. It is exactly like an
expert player of "Twenty Questions," who can narrow down on a single
object out of all the objects in the world by getting twenty "yes-or-no"
It is an error to romanticize, humanize, or personify
these devices. They are completely unimaginative servants; they
can do exactly what they are told, provided a tube doesn't burn
out, and provided also that what they are told is consistent with
what they can do; but they can do no more. They are controlled by
the men who make them, the men who operate them, and the men who
program them. They are especially at the mercy of the men who turn
them off when the day is through.
Any time a computer seems
to show imagination, it is because someone used imagination in designing
its program. If a "giant brain" solves a problem, it is because
someone (a) knew exactly how to go about solving that problem, and
(b) knew precisely how to instruct the equipment in the procedures
for solving that problem. If anyone ever gets one of these computers
to write a symphony, for example, it will be because that person
knows the laws of melody and harmony, counterpoint, orchestral placement,
musical structure, and scoring, and knows what limits to set, and
knows further how to translate all these laws, maxims, and principles
into an abecedarian lingo that the simpleminded "brain" can follow.
Anyone who can do that could write the symphony himself, in less
time than it would take to get the computer to do it. The only advantage
would be that the computer could turn out an infinitude of remarkably
similar symphonies at an extremely rapid rate.
the Giant Brains Part 2 to be concluded next month)