How Computers Work: Part 3

Part two of this series left off with the ancient computational tool known as the abacus. From there we fast forward through history to the nineteenth century. Sure, a lot of important things happened in that time frame, but none of it was really central to the advancement of the computer. Most of that time was spent fighting each other, fighting off the plague, and fighting over how much it should cost to paint the ceilings in prestigious religious establishments.

These events are part of what is known as the “Dark Ages.” Despite the fact that on average the amount of sunlight the planet received had not changed, the people on the planet were depressed, wore dark clothes and sunglasses all the time, and didn’t spend a lot of time learning the ways of the abacus. In more informal situations, many historians refer to the period of human development as the “pimply moody teenage years.” This situation did very little to stimulate the creative juices of the general population.

The next major advancement in the area of computational machinery came in the late 1800s in a rather unlikely form. No, I’m not talking about evil alien time traveling robot monkeys who ruthlessly scavenge the planet for shiny pieces of scrap metal. At the time of this writing the monkeys in question have only achieved limited success in building their time machine. The piece of equipment to which I’m referring relates to, of course, the textile industry.

At this point in time many nations of the world were busy building expansive factories and cutting down vast forest lands to keep the factories up and running. A few individuals focused their time and attention to making the world a better place to live. Despite the dark ages being over for the most part, being optimistic and proactive was not very fashionable at the time. Even so, some of these people voiced the opinion that cutting down the forests and building factories that polluted the air wasn’t very good for the planet. Oddly enough, these people tended to die in unfortunate industrial accidents such as falling into smoke stacks or having large trees fall on their house in the middle of the night.

A few slightly less radical individuals got together and decided the world might be a better place to live in if instead of producing endless quantities of drab colored fabric, the textile factories made blankets with images of cute little bunny rabbits woven into the cloth. After looking into the situation, they discovered it was quite simple to produce fabric made of a single color, and quite difficult to integrate mammals into the design.

To solve this problem, they designed a revolutionary new weaving loom that used a special series of cards with holes in various positions. The individual strings on the loom would be positioned based on whether there was a hole in the punch card at that location. A series of these cards allowed for intricate designs to be produced with little additional effort. The guy operating the machine does not need to know the exact details of why there are random looking holes in the punch cards. They just slide the “bunny rabbit” cards into the machine until enough fabric has been produced. Then they can quickly stop the machine and put in a different pattern, such as “evil monkey robots.”

For various reasons this device was never a wide spread commercial success. In addition to being bulky and expensive, whenever any of the two dozen delicate threads feeding into the machine broke, the blanket produced was totally solid with the exception of a message in the exact center that would read “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B” along with a special 1-800 number and web address to contact for further assistance. Since neither the telephone nor the Internet had been invented yet, the technical support department had quite a bit of free time to pursue other activities such as creating loom patterns that produced wildly inappropriate images of the high ranking political figures of their day.

While this may seem like a small technological advancement, this new design allowed for information to be stored on punch cards and used on different machines. The designers probably didn’t know it at the time, but a hundred years into the future this concept would be used as a fundamental component of modern day computers.

This completes another installment on how computers work. So tonight when you crawl into your bed with your special Mr. Honey Bunny blanket, you can sleep a little easier knowing how it came to be. And don’t worry too much about the evil alien robot monkeys. The odds of them suddenly materializing in your bedroom are rather slim. But on the off chance they do launch an offensive attack, don’t let them see that new sliver filling on your back molar.