How Computers Work: Part 2

Welcome back to part two of the continuing series that explains how computers work. Last time we covered fingers, toes, and piles of rocks. While the connection between these items and today’s computers may seem tenuous at best, the idea is to understand how these creatures evolved over time. I wasn’t all that long ago when computers were large, primitive, hairy animals who scurried about in the tropical climates of world feeding on native plants and sleeping eighteen hours of every day. Wait a minute, I was thinking of Marlon Brando.

The next important technological advance in the world involved numbers. One of the first numbering systems was invented by a fellow named Edgar Roman. The year was 999 and Edgar was busy preparing those miniature hot dogs for his Y1K party. While known to his friends as kind, generous, and generally agreeable to be around in social situations, Edgar was not blessed with an abundance of hand eye coordination. He managed to drop the whole box of toothpicks on to the floor while trying to get them out of the very top shelf of the kitchen cupboard.

Looking at all the toothpicks on the floor, Edgar realized that numbers can be represented as simple symbols such as I, V, X, M and so on. It would have been much, much easier to write “You are formally invited to Edgar’s house to ring in the ‘M’th year of our Lord” instead of having to count out exactly 1000 tiny tick marks on each and every invitation. After throwing the party, seeing if the apocalypse was really going to rip the known world in half, and dealing with a few issues relating to excessive alcohol consumption, Edgar sat down and created a formal definition of his numbering system. While originally named “Edgar’s Wacky Toothpick Numbers,” some of his more politically correct associates convinced him to change it to “Roman Numerals.”

There may be some confusion about why the Roman numeral for 1000 is the letter M, but the letter K is often times used to denote the same number. This deviation was created in the late 15th century when Samuel Gates Junior– a distant predecessor of William Gates– decided to create a completely new system of counting. After researching the legal ramifications of Roman numerals, he discovered that anyone could use the system without having to pay royalties to Edgar’s descendants. Seeing the potential for a proprietary counting system, an ever so slightly different system was developed and then licensed to companies interested in counting things. While the system was inferior to the original, it was used by enough of the population to create confusion for several centuries.

One important idea missing in Roman Numerals is the concept of zero. Many experts attribute this deficiency to the fact that it is quite difficult to bend toothpicks into a complete circle without breaking it. Another possibility is that the Romans were pragmatic about the whole situation and figured if there wasn’t anything there, why bother keeping track of it? For example, you can physically oppress the serfs until the aqueducts are completed, but if their pockets don’t contain any gold coins, then it’s all just wasted effort.

Many people think that the first personal digital assistants (PDAs) came into existence in the late 1990s. In reality, this technology has been around for many hundreds of years. The abacus was the first portable device that allowed the user to store and retrieve information. The basic design of the abacus originated in Asia and involved a series of rods with beads that could freely slide up and down the rod to keep track of numbers. While technically portable, these devices would malfunction if shaken or rotated too vigorously. When this happened, the device would turn completely blue and the message “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B” would magically appear. Ancient Chinese texts explain this mysterious event as a sign of the devil traveling to the earth with the intention of destroying the planet.

The invention of the abacus also marked the start of the playground bully. Some of the smarter and less physically skilled students would sit on the stairs of the steps of the school using the abacus they received for their birthday to try and answer the esoteric question, “how many roads must a boy travel down before he becomes a man?” The less intellectually inclined students feared that which they didn’t understand, and would often times start a game of kickball with the computing device. Which is really a shame, since the kick ball had already been invented.

Well, that wraps up another segments on computers. If you would like more information on the topics discussed today, please visit the nearest ancient Roman library and local abacus store.