age of Python programmers

Mark Jackson mjackson at alumni.caltech.edu
Thu Aug 19 20:19:08 CEST 2004


"Paul McGuire" <ptmcg at austin.rr._bogus_.com> writes:
> "Scott David Daniels" <Scott.Daniels at Acm.Org> wrote in message
> news:4124d4a4$1 at nntp0.pdx.net...
> > Mike Brenner wrote:
> >
> > > I was born about 10,000 years ago and I used to
> > > program computers made of human beings who
> > > were aligned in tiers. The bottom tier counted
> > > the grains in the baskets. The next tier
> > > counted the baskets in the barn, then the
> > > number of brans in each country.
> > >
> > Don't laugh.  I met a woman roughly my age (53 now)
> > whose mother was a programmer at los Alamos (or was
> > it Trinity?) -- she programmed rooms of people
> > running mechanical calculators (calculate this, if
> > a > b, pass your results right, otherwise, ...)
> >
> > Scott David Daniels
> > Scott.Daniels at Acm.Org
> 
> This technique is also described in Neal Stephenson's book "Cryptonomicon".

Must have been Los Alamos (IIRC "Trinity" was just the code name for
the site of the first bomb test).  If so, the replacement of the
mechanical calculator array by IBM unit record devices (which also were
"programmed" the same way) is mentioned in /"Surely You're Joking, Mr.
Feynman!"/, which also describes what is most likely the first
documented case of computer addiction.  Here's the excerpt I posted to
comp.risks in 1987:

Anyway, we decided that the big problem -- which was to figure out
exactly what happened during the bomb's implosion, so you can figure
out exactly how much energy was released and so on -- required much
more calculating than we were capable of.  A clever fellow by the name
of Stanley Frankel realized that it could possibly be done on IBM
machines.  The IBM company had machines for business purposes, adding
machines called tabulators for listing sums, and a multiplier that you
put cards in and it would take two numbers from a card and multiply
them.  There were also collators and sorters and so on.

So Frankel figured out a nice program.  If we got enough of these
machines in a room, we could take the cards and put them through a
cycle.  Everybody who does numerical calculations now knows exactly
what I I'm talking about, but this was kind of a new thing then -- mass
production with machines.  We had done things like this on adding
machines.  Usually you go one step across, doing everything yourself.
But this was different -- where you go first to the adder, then to the
multiplier, then to the adder, and so on.  So Frankel designed this
system and ordered the machines from the IBM company, because we
realized it was a good way of solving our problems.

. . . .

Well, Mr. Frankel, who started this program, began to suffer from the
computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows
about.  It's a very serious disease and it interferes completely with
the work.  The trouble with computers is you /play/ with them.  They
are so wonderful.  You have these switches -- if it's an even number
you do this, if it's an odd number you do that -- and pretty soon you
can do more and more elaborate things if you are clever enough, on one
machine.

After a while the whole system broke down.  Frankel wasn't paying any
attention; he wasn't supervising anybody.  The system was going very,
very slowly -- while he was sitting in a room figuring out how to make
one tabulator automatically print arc-tangent X, and then it would
start and it would print columns and then /bitsi, bitsi, bitsi/, and
calculate the arc-tangent automatically by integrating as it went along
and make a whole table in one operation.

Absolutely useless.  We /had/ tables of arc-tangents.  But if you've
ever worked with computers, you understand the disease -- the /delight/
in being able to see how much you can do.  But he got the disease for
the first time, the poor fellow who invented the thing.

I was asked to stop working on the stuff I was doing in my group and go
down and take over the IBM group, and I tried to avoid the disease.
. . . .

-- 
Mark Jackson - http://www.alumni.caltech.edu/~mjackson
	Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it
	is the merger of state and corporate power.
				- Benito Mussolini





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