Join 3,524 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


How to operate the first digital computer.
August 13, 2010 8:49 PM   Subscribe

Learn how to operate the world's first fully electronic digital computer in this helpful instructional video. No, not ENIAC - the Atanasoff Berry Computer. Here's an operator's manual. More information about the reconstruction.
posted by loquacious (24 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I used to walk by that thing (well, the reconstruction) every other day at ISU. They have it in the atrium of the CE building.
posted by delmoi at 9:15 PM on August 13, 2010


I actually have held the serial plate for UNIVAC 001 (the first commercial computer produced) in my hands.

now off to the read the article.
posted by empath at 9:26 PM on August 13, 2010


I remember seeing this in college too. Go ISU!
posted by sanka at 9:36 PM on August 13, 2010


The part about why and how the original was destroyed made me shiver. Why can't we ever seem to know what we should keep and what we can discard? Do we not believe the future will happen? Do we not believe future people will continue to care about the past?

Maybe we just can't tell whether something is important until we see how the rest of the world carries on for a while. It's maddening to me and I'm not a historian.
posted by fritley at 9:38 PM on August 13, 2010


Nice! It's pretty sophisticated. I'm not sure I would call it a computer though as it doesn't seem to be programmable. I'm still impressed though.
posted by chairface at 10:42 PM on August 13, 2010


Tangential: Here's the ENIAC on one chip.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:53 PM on August 13, 2010


Fascinating courtroom history (for patent geeks) - from the link:

Judge Larson had ruled that John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry had constructed the first electronic digital computer at Iowa State College in the 1939 - 1942 period. He had also ruled that John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, who had for more than twenty-five years been feted, trumpeted, and honored as the co-inventors of the first electronic digital computer, were not entitled to the patent upon which that honor was based. Furthermore, Judge Larson had ruled that Mauchly had pirated Atanasoff's ideas, and for more than thirty years had palmed those ideas off on the world as the product of his own genius.
posted by Muddler at 11:27 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah yes. "several key principles of the Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC) were conceived in a sudden insight after a long nighttime drive during the winter of 1937–38
posted by billb at 12:44 AM on August 14, 2010


fritley: Why can't we ever seem to know what we should keep and what we can discard? Do we not believe the future will happen?

Back then, people thought computers were specialized devices that hardly anyone needed. Tom Watson, the head of IBM, has a memorable quote from 1958: "I think there is a world market for about five computers." And that was more than twenty years later.

There's a long period of time between when things cease to be useful and when they start to become historically significant. Nobody probably cared very much about this machine until the 1970s, and it had been retired long, long before. It didn't work very well, and it wasn't a stored-program computer, it was a machine that did math very quickly -- 30 additions or subtractions a second. And it packed that blazing speed into just 800 square feet and 700 pounds.

This machine wasn't interesting because of what it did. Anyone in the 1950s would have looked at it as a completely useless relic. It's only interesting now because it was the first machine to use capacitors to store data, and to do all its math electronically. In 1937, that was pretty amazing, but to someone looking at the bill for office space in 1950, it would be completely pointless to keep it around. You could put a genuinely useful machine into the same floor space, one that did a whole heck of a lot more.

Something isn't historically significant until it's history. And I doubt very much that anyone at the time had any clue how important their techniques would eventually be. I mean, witness the 1970s and 1980s, when everyone everywhere in the US became convinced it was important to teach kids computers, but you could hardly find a parent that could tell you why. It was just a general idea that they were Important.

40 years later, in other words, they still didn't have a real clue about what an impact computers would have, and yet you're upset at these guys for not figuring it out in the middle of the Great Depression? You know, when automobiles were still kinda new, and they didn't even have color TV?

I'd say they get a pass on this one. Just enjoy the fact that we recognize the importance of the machine's technologies 60 years later.
posted by Malor at 1:53 AM on August 14, 2010


I wonder what kind of hardware the Germans came up with in WWII. I bet a lot of their records were lost. Although I don't know.
posted by delmoi at 1:58 AM on August 14, 2010


Another way of putting it: you can't know if an idea is historically significant until you see what the world does with it, and keeping that machine around, just in case, would have completely filled a small apartment.

If he'd kept the darn thing, just on the off chance that people might think this binary math from capacitors idea was a good one, everyone would have thought he was a hoarder.
posted by Malor at 2:03 AM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Delmoi, I think they were totally focused on mechanical devices, like the Enigma. I don't think they were doing much of anything with electronics. They didn't have the nerd culture we did.

Our superior cryptographic attack abilities have been claimed to be the real reason we won the war, and our primitive computers were a big aid in that effort.
posted by Malor at 2:07 AM on August 14, 2010


I wonder what kind of hardware the Germans came up with in WWII. I bet a lot of their records were lost. Although I don't know.

Konrad Zuse. To summarize:

First programmable computer - may 1941. (electro-mechanical, using relays and binary floating point math) Sometime before the Atanasoff Berry Computer which was not fully programmable. The Z3 was also accidentally Turing-complete although this was not discovered until 1998.

The Z4, predating Eniac and built under wartime conditions in Germany, fully Turing-complete, the second fully programmable computer to be sold and the first to be built commercially.

Zuse is one of those things that make me question the established truth that war accelerates technological progress. Imagine if Zuse and Turing and whoever could freely exchange ideas and not have their work classified for long periods of time or curtailed by the necessity to build more tanks to be destroyed in the front. Certainly there was a large influx of money into Eniac and other projects due to military needs but I don't think it would have taken that long to get there without that. And perhaps the history of computing would have been different with say Zuse's symbolic programming language implemented very early.
posted by Authorized User at 2:56 AM on August 14, 2010


And while certainly his designs were vastly inferior in speed and capability due to their electro-mechanical nature this did not indicate a lack of knowledge, imagination and engineering ability, rather the financial realities of war-time and post-war Germany. Arguably his ideas were well ahead of what others were doing at the time.
posted by Authorized User at 3:05 AM on August 14, 2010


fritley: "The part about why and how the original was destroyed made me shiver. Why can't we ever seem to know what we should keep and what we can discard? Do we not believe the future will happen? Do we not believe future people will continue to care about the past?

Maybe we just can't tell whether something is important until we see how the rest of the world carries on for a while. It's maddening to me and I'm not a historian.
"

Exactly. I think saving such an important piece of computer history is worth knocking 3 inches off of a couple of door-jambs.
posted by Splunge at 3:42 AM on August 14, 2010


I think every computer would benefit from having a large capacitor-start motor jutting out of its side.
posted by werkzeuger at 4:58 AM on August 14, 2010


Back then, people thought computers were specialized devices that hardly anyone needed. Tom Watson, the head of IBM, has a memorable quote from 1958: "I think there is a world market for about five computers." And that was more than twenty years later.

This is all kinds of wrong. Firstly Thomas Watson died in 1956. The quote is usually attributed to him in 1943, but there is no evidence of him ever saying it. His son, Thomas Watson, Jr. did mention in a speech in 1953 that in the 40s IBM predicted that they would get five orders for a particular model, but he must have been using it as contrast because by 1953 IBM was already selling the model 701 and 650. IBM installed 19 units of the 701 between 1952-6 and the sold almost 2000 units of the 650 by 1962, so it is completely laughable that anyone in 1958 would think that the world would need only five computers.

Here is what Ralph Keyes had to say about the matter in The Quote Verifier (2006)
IBM president Thomas Watson supposedly made this observation in 1943. It was popularized in The Experts Speak, whose compilers again cited as their source that book's English predecessor, The Book of Facts and Fallacies. Though many have tried to verify this remark, no one has succeeded. Diligent searching by biographer Keven Maney turned up no such prediction in press coverage of IBM or in Watson's speeches and papers. IBM's own archivists can only tell the many who inquire about this prediction by Watson that it can't be found in their files (and they've looked). On the other hand, Harvard's Howard Aiken, who before World War II developed a mechanical calculator called Mark I, is known to have estimated after the war that the entire country's computing needs could be met with four or five electronic computers. (Aiken was not the only one to feel this way at that time.) According to Maney, Thomas Watson's son and successor, Thomas Watson, Jr., gave a speech in 1953 saying that in the 1940s IBM anticipated getting five orders for an early computer they developed. In 1951, British physicist Douglas Hartree told a visitor that in his opinion three computers would be sufficient to do all the calculations that Great Britain would ever need. Attributing a version of these forecasts to Tom Watson is one more case of a quotation seeking out the most prominent appropriate mouth.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:45 AM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah, thanks, Rhomboid. I just went with the 1958 date because that's what came up first to a quick Google search, and it never occurred to me to dig any further. Usually people get dates on quotes right. :)
posted by Malor at 5:48 AM on August 14, 2010


er, dates and quotes.
posted by Malor at 5:51 AM on August 14, 2010


Ah yes. "several key principles of the Atanasoff–Berry Computer (ABC) were conceived in a sudden insight after a long nighttime drive during the winter of 1937–38"

He drove a little more than 200 miles to Rock Island, IL, just across the Mississippi. There is some local lore that suggests he went to the Jolly Rodger, one of the several nudie bars that existed at the time (and one that still exists today). Perhaps more reliable is that he stopped at The Hunters Club, a tavern that contiued operation until a couple years ago and has recently been turned into what looks like an MMA bar. The most detailed info I could find about the evening is on this site, specifically here.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 5:57 AM on August 14, 2010


The part about why and how the original was destroyed made me shiver.

On mailing list I frequent, someone recently posted about visiting the U of A mirror lab. These folks make some of the largest space telescope mirrors in the world, to an accuracy of nanometers (thickness of a virus). The largest mirror size they can construct is 8.4m. Why? It isn't a lack of technology to go bigger.

Well, for budget reasons the lab is located in the basement of the football stadium. The structural grid is what was appropriate to building that stadium. Anything larger than 8.4m could not be removed from the building given the column spacing. So, effectively the size of space telescope mirrors we can produce as a society is linked to the efficient structural support of college football bleachers.

Things like this happen all the time. One task of architects, engineers and contractors is to make sure that stuff that is too big to get in and out through the doors gets put in place before the walls are all built in.
posted by meinvt at 7:46 AM on August 14, 2010


Awesome stuff; amazing to see it was only the size of a workbench. Thanks for that post.

Okay fess up: How many of you clicked on the 'operator's manual' link first? How many of you were slightly disappointed that it wasn't the original manual? (How many of you were stoked that it had a flowchart of the process?)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:56 AM on August 14, 2010


Am working on a PDP-11 emu for this. After I rebuild the motor.
posted by everichon at 8:35 AM on August 14, 2010


I enjoy the careful tango of how all these 'firsts' are worded:

US A-B: 'first fully electronic digital computing'

German Zuse Z3: 'first working programmable, fully automatic computing'

DA: 'first widely practical version of such a machine was constructed...in 1927'

Colussus: 'world's first programmable, digital, electronic, computing'

Oh well, whoever wins, everybody had fun, right?
posted by Twang at 7:42 PM on August 14, 2010


« Older The Age of Uncertainty...  |  Theory 11... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments