How Computers Work: Part 5

After the concepts involved in the Eniac computer were proved to be a success, people started asking a lot of questions about the future of computational devices. “What else can it do?”, “Can it be made smaller than 200 tons?”, and “Does it come in blue?” were just a few of the many, many thoughts people had about the topic.

The 1950s and 1960s were quite exciting times for the development of computers. Successors to the Eniac system allowed researchers to gain valuable insights into mathematical and sociological functions of our world. For example, the companies who won large and profitable government contracts to build and maintain computer systems quickly learned to construct their systems with large panels of blinking lights. While a few of the lights actually corresponded to actual parameters related to the machinery such as “power”, “something is going on inside”, and “an unknown error has occurred at location at 57EE:009B”, most of the lights were designed to blink on and off in such a way that was aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

This functionality proved to be critical when top level defense department officials or members of congress stopped by to see the final results of their considerable expenditures. After a tour of the facilities, the gentlemen would light up their pipes, puff out their chests, and confidently spew out random pleasantries like “Good work men!”, “This is EXACTLY what we need to beat the Commies!”, and “I don’t know about you, Bob, but I think it needs more blue lights.” Eventually the contractors brought in interior decorators during the hardware design phase to coordinate the color schemes of the systems. Some of the individuals who programmed the computers started to develop software that did nothing more than make the lights blink in the most interesting sequence possible.

Eventually blinking light technology reached a limit and computer designers were forced to explore other avenues. An in depth investigation revealed that in addition to changes in light intensity, the human eye responds positively to periodic rotational motion. Armed with this knowledge, computers were enhanced with state-of-the-art tape drives. While containing little, if any, adhesive properties, these devices were used to store and retrieve information on a long and thin strip of material capable of holding a magnetic charge. The constant back-and-forth motion provided a convincing illusion of productivity. Often times the managers of these facilities would be giving tours of the computer facility while the rest of the office was busy in the break room building elaborate paper fortresses with rolls of scotch tape and reams of used continuous feed paper.

In addition to the blinking lights and reel-to-reel tape devices, each generation of computers was becoming smaller and more powerful than its predecessor. The development of the integrated circuit allowed designers to eliminate bulky vacuum tubes. These types of technological advancements allowed for the same amount of computational power to occupy a continually shrinking volume of space. This phenomena is often times referred to as the Carnie Wilson effect.

All of this visual stimulation associated with computing devices led the general public to assume that while computers were useful in some abstract manner, they would eventually become sentient and bent on destroying the human race. While it isn’t mathematically feasible to prove such an event will never happen, many popular films of the era encouraged this concept. One prime example is the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

After successfully sending its crew half way across the solar system, HAL, the talkative onboard computer system, decides to fling the crew into outer space one at a time just because he had nothing better to do. In all reality that is not how computers of the day would have worked. The worst thing that could have happened was the “fling yourself out the airlock one at a time” light would have lit up. Eventually the crew would have realized this was a computer error and not in the best interest of the mission. If this occurred before everyone followed the instructions one of the remaining crew members would have put a small piece of tape over the light and ignored it for the duration of the movie. I believe this would have all been clearly explained if a logistical error during the final editing process hadn’t caused extensive quantities of a completely different film to accidentally replace the intended ending of the movie.

While the 1950s and 1960s were a time of extensive change in the world of computers, the true power of these devices were just beginning to be discovered. Will these machines of our own creation, with their hypnotizing blinking lights and magnetic tape drives, indeed take over the world? The world may never know-unless, perhaps, you are Bill Gates.