• Richard Harvey

Computer history - it's history Jim, but not as we know it!

You may well remember the 1987 hit "Star Trekkin" in which Mr Spock's quote, "It's Life Jim but not as we know it," makes an appearance. Although Mr Spock never said it, it sounds as though he could have said it. "Elementary My Dear Watson!"


But, what about the famous quote attributed to Thomas J Watson, the Founder of IBM, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Complete phooey I'm afraid. I can forgive confusing Thomas J Watson with his son, Thomas J. Watson (an easy mistake to make and one that I make in the lecture!) but what about the sense of the quote? Why the blazes would Thomas J Watson, whose very existence depended on selling computers, bother to tell people that they could not be sold? And given the illogicality of the quote why does it persist? Presumably it persists because there are some people who are so in love with the idea that the future cannot be predicted that they will go to any lengths to promote it.


What are origins of this strange quote? Well according to the IBM archives, Thomas J. Watson Jr , was speaking at IBM’s annual stockholders meeting on April 28, 1953. He was referring to the IBM 701 which was introduced in 1952 as a scientific computer, and said “IBM had developed a paper plan for such a machine and took this paper plan across the country to some 20 concerns that we thought could use such a machine. I would like to tell you that the machine rents for between $12,000 and $18,000 a month, so it was not the type of thing that could be sold from place to place. But, as a result of our trip, on which we expected to get orders for five machines, we came home with orders for 18.” In other words and according to the IBM FAQ, the quote has the exact opposite of its meaning. The computer business was booming then as it has continued to boom.


But what about our lead-in quote "it's history Jim, but not a we know it"? Well that is true: computer history has quite a few aspects that differentiate it from other disciplines. Firstly it is commonplace to hear computer scientists disparage history: "An armchair subject" I heard it called. That is perhaps not very clever but it is true that subjects that are creative and focussed on the future often think the past represents obsolescence. Indeed we taught throughout a technical education that old is obsolete and ineffective.

Secondly, and I did mention this in the lecture, there are significant innovations from industry or government labs. Sometimes they keep secret about their inventions. The absolute peak of secrecy was Collosus and the code-breaking at Blectchley Park in the UK. The British government cloaked the whole activity with obsessive secrecy until the mid 1970s when Brian Randall, broke the story at the Los Alamos Conference on the History of Computing on June 10th 1976. There is a contemporaneous account of that conference in which the author noted the expressions of Konrad Zuse (the German Computer Pioneer and John Mauchly (the inventor of ENIAC). Apparently it was a jaw dropping moment when these two pioneers realised that they had been comprehensively scooped by the Bletchley Team. Although it must have been very exciting at the time, it is a tragedy for science and technology when these things happen. Not withstanding the films about Bletchley and the Turing, the truth is that the work at Bletchley was useless to science - work that is kept secret until it is obsolete is nugatory. If you contrast that with ENIAC, the early US computer, which was only programmable by wires and switches, ie not a stored program computer, it appears that ENIAC was open to visitors. The LEO team visited ENIAC and became inspired to produce the world's first commercial computer LEO using developments at Cambridge.

Thirdly, the obsession with discovering firsts is particularly unhelpful in engineering disciplines - many of the firsts were little more than a bag of bolts and some gaffer tape. To take an analogy with flight, although there are claims for the Wright Brother, Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont, equally interesting, if not more so, is the history of KLM, the world's oldest airline. How fascinating to imagine the first flights from Croydon to Amsterdam in the 1920s. KLM is still a big commercial enterprise whereas there is no Wright Brothers -- the early bird might catch the worm but, in technology, it is the second mouse that eats the cheese.


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©2020 by Richard Harvey, Professor of Computer Science and AI, Public speaker and consultant.