Tagged: history of computing

Welcome, students.

It’s that time of year again, when we return to the classroom and try to make old lessons new. At least in history. Fortunately, that isn’t hard when you teach history of technology. There’s nothing like a rapidly changing contemporary landscape to put past technological developments into new perspective on a continual basis.

This year I’m doing a new course, somewhat cheekily titledĀ “Disasters!” It looks at technological change through the lens of regulatory and social paradigm shifts caused by disasters: environmental, organizational, medical and more. It also shows students how to work with historical newspaper sources and databases, because as we discussed in class earlier this week, one of the key defining elements of a disaster is the public perception of an event as such. We are fortunate enough to now have the London Times Digital Archive for this purpose (prior to this year IIT had only very limited newspaper databases–I hope we’ll be able to get the historical New York Times archive sometime soon, despite its expense).

Sketch of early electronic (mostly) computing landscape doodled as a study aid for my students last fall.

I’m also teaching my History of Computing course (aka Computing in History), revamped with new articles and learning activities that incorporate just-opened primary documents from my summer trip to the UK National Archives. Later in the semester you’ll be seeing some blog commentary from my students as part of their class assignments.

In fact–students–this post would be a great time for you to test out leaving a comment. You don’t have to use your real name if you don’t want to, but be sure to pick one handle and stick with it for the rest of the semester. Answer this: how many unread messages do you currently have in your main email inbox? For me, it’s 9,607. Yikes.

Don’t worry if your comment doesn’t show up immediately: I need to approve them.

 

Bletchley Park’s Colossus Rebuild

This summer, while doing research at the UK National Archives, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a side-trip to the Bletchley Park historical site in Milton Keynes.

The site of some of the most important codebreaking of World War II, Bletchley Park now functions as a museum of early British codebreaking and computing. A dedicated team there has painstakingly constructed a working model of the Colossus, the 1900-vaccuum tube behemoth designed and built by London Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers in 1943 to speed “Tunny” codebreaking operations using codebreaker William Tutte’s statistical method. The Colossus rebuild is a sight to behold–and hear–as you can see from the video below:

Though Turing and his electromechanical Bombes get a lot of credit for wartime codebreaking successes (there is a working Bombe rebuild at BP too), it was Flowers’s Colossi that sped up British codebreaking to the point of maximal utility. They were the first digital, programmable computers to harness the speed of electronics for time-sensitive, mission-critical work. His team produced 10 of the massive machines between late 1943 and the war’s end, frantically working out of a factory-like workshop in Birmingham after building the first Colossus at the Dollis Hill Research Station in London. Colossus II, installed just days before D-Day, was so critical to the success of the D-Day landings that (as B. Jack Copeland reports) the operators had to keep the machine running despite the floor being flooded–they put on thick rubber boots so that they didn’t get electrocuted.

Women’s Royal Naval Service members working on a Colossus (from I. J. Good, D. Michie, and G. Timms, General Report on Tunny With Emphasis on Statistical Methods, 1945, 332, HW 2/25, TNA). The workers have been identified as Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker (right) by historian B. Jack Copeland.

While I was at the exhibit, I overheard a father trying to explain to his young son what the Colossus was, in terms he thought the boy might understand. Brandishing his iPhone, he said: “See, this phone is millions of times more powerful than that big computer.”

Call me back when your iPhone wins a war, I thought.