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Sept. 2009 - Computer History on the World Wide Web

A monthly discussion of computer history topics inspired by recent web browsing

UK government apologizes to Alan Turing
Steve Furber : interview
The origins of the Internet
More Computer Restoration at Bletchley Park

UK government apologizes to Alan Turing

In a public
published on the web on September 10, British
prime-minister Gordon Brown, responding to an on-line
which collected 30000 signatures, formally apologized
for the way cryptographer and pioneering computer scientist Alan
was treated in the years preceding his death in 1954.

The apology is long overdue,
but I have three criticisms of the text. The first, and most
important, is the complete absence of any reference to Turing’s
important contributions to the early development of computing. It
arguable, though the debate would be sterile, whether Turing’s
war-time services at Bletchley Park or his work on computers has had
a greater impact on our every-day life today. Alan Turing does not
lack recognition, in 1966 the prestigious Association
of Computer Machinery
(ACM) in the USA instituted the annual
Turing Award,
considered the Nobel prize of computing, in recognition of his
important contributions to the field.

The other two criticisms are
of ones tone. This is an important official statement which will be
referred to by historians for decades if not centuries to come, yet
prime-minister Brown nuances this statement by saying that Turing
was a "quite brilliant" mathematician. I think most anyone
with any knowledge of Turing’s mathematical work would describe it
as brilliant, "quite brilliant" unjustly take the edge off
the complement. The other point is the pride prime-minister Brown
expresses, in the final paragraph, in making the nations apology. I
am sorry, but being proud of issuing an apology only raises
questions of its sincerity in my mind.

Hopefully these two criticisms
are regrettable oversights in the editing of the text and do not
accurately reflect the prime-ministers real feelings, perhaps
another apology will be forthcoming, but will we need to wait
another 45 years ?

See this BBC
news item
for a more balanced view of Alan Turing’s
contributions. More details may be found on Jack Copeland’s award
winning website

Steve Furber : interview

, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at the School of
Computer Science at the University of Manchester, was one of the, if
not THE, first employee of Acorn
founded in 1978. He worked on many of the mythic
microcomputers of the 1980’s including the Science
of Cambridge MK14
and the BBC
. Following the extraordinary success of the latter, and
after evaluating the 16-bit microprocessors of the time, Acorn
decided to design its own processor, Steve being one of its
principle designers. The first silicon of the the Acorn Risc Machine
(ARM) processor was operational in April of 1985. Many of todays
mobile phones and PDA’s run on modern versions of the ARM processor
Steve speculates that the power of all ARM processors in operation
today exceeds the combined power of all other processors every

In this one hour video
with Jason Fitzpatrick of the Center
for Computing History
, Professor Furber relates many interesting
stories about those early microcomputers. The interview ends with an
overview of his latest project, SpiNNaker,
which proposes to build a machine composed of 1,000,000 ARM cores to
simulate neural networks and provide a tool for brain research.

The origins of the Internet

National Geographic was the
first I found to trumpet the September 1969 "birth" of the
internet in a somewhat disjointed video
which seems to try and mention almost every facet of the history of
computing. More articles in the same vein followed from
and even the ultra-geek hack-a-day

In fact the internet was a
later development and the WWW, often misnamed internet, later still.
This site
chronicles the developments which began in 1969 and eventually gave
us the internet.

The origins of the internet
might be traced to

  • In
    September 1940 George
    of Bell Telephone labs demonstrated the operation of
    his Complex Number Calculator, located in New York City, at a
    Dartmouth MA conference of the American Mathematical Society, the
    first example of the remote operation of a computing machine.

  • In
    July 1945 Atlantic Magazine published the celebrated article "As
    We May Think"
    in which by Vannevar
    gave remarkably prescient description of the use of an
    internet terminal even if the technology he described is somewhat

  • By
    the late 1950’s the US DoD was installing SAGE,
    a continent wide network of IBM computers used in the surveillance
    and control of US airspace.

  • In
    1962 J.C.R.
    wrote a series of memos in which he described his
    "Galactic Network".

  • In 1965 working with
    Thomas Merrill, Laurence G. Roberts connected the TX-2 computer in
    Massachusetts to the Q-32 in California with a low speed dial-up
    telephone line creating the first (however small) wide-area
    heterogeneous computer network.

In September 1969 the first
elements of what would become ARPAnet
were put in place at UCLA in California when the first Interface
Message Processor (IMP) was delivered at the end of August 1969. The
IMPs, specially programmed Honeywell 316 mini-computers, isolated
the mainframes from the intricacies of the network allowing them
process data while the IMPs were responsible for routing data to its
proper destination and to ensuring the smooth flow of traffic.

ARPAnet was only one of
several networking projects begun in the early 1970’s. In France the
and in the UK at the National
Physical Laboratory
heavily influenced the final shape of the
global network.

The different networks gave
valuable insight into the way they worked and provided test-beds for
the development of innovative ideas. However the proliferation of
protocols and physical connections precluded the connection of
machines on different networks. Thus was born the idea of a "network
of networks", or internet, which would allow transparent
communication between any computer regardless of the networks they
were physically connected to.

More links on this subject :

More Computer Restoration at Bletchley Park

In other news, the BBC
on the project
at the National Museum of Computing
(NMC) at Bletchley Park, to restore one of the very early British
computers, the AERE
HARWELL computer
. Constructed between 1949 and 1951 of Post
Office relays, 900 Dekatron tubes provided a memory of 90 words of
10 digits each. Though usually operated from paper tape, it could be
set up to execute instructions from its store, though this was
actually slower than executing instructions from the tape reader. It
was used by the AERE computing group providing exceptionally
reliable service from 1952 until 1956.

In 1957 it was moved to the
Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College (later
Wolverhampton University) where it was used to teach computing until
1973. Subsequently it was displayed at the Birmingham Museum of
Science and Industry, as reported here,
before being put into storage.

Kevin Murrel, director of the
NMC, has an extensive collection of photos of this and other old
computers on his Flikr

The Computer Conservation
Society at this web
provides a wealth of information abut the machine,
including photographs, a 21 page programming and operation manual,
and even (low res) images of the machine schematics.

Jack Howlett’s 1979 article
at Harwell 1949-1961
provides an interesting account of using a
variety of machines for computation in this period.

More articles :


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