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 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish

 

February 2004

Vol VIII Issue II


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The History of the Computer
Part II: The World Wars

By Phoebe Ayers, MLIS Day
In her sequel to The History of the Computer: Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine, published in the January issue of the Silverfish, Phoebe Ayers continues her investigation into the history of computing. This article reviews books and movies that tell the story of computing from the 1930s to the 1950s.

David Richie, in his breezy, entertaining book about early computers and their developers, The Computer Pioneers, (Simon and Schuster, 1986) writes:

“If one had to name the individual who did the most to speed the development of the electronic computer, a case could be made for choosing Adolf Hitler. He initiated a war that called for quantum advances in science and technology, which called in turn for greatly improved data-handling equipment, which spurred the development of the electronic computer (70)."

Richie develops his argument by looking at computers and advances in computing that date from the Second World War – British machines with colloquial names, built especially for codebreaking, that have since become legendary such as the Bombe, Heath Robinson and the Collossus. He also discusses other computers built from the 1930s to the 1950s, which although not especially built for the war effort, were spurred on by the same technological developments of the time. These include the Harvard Marks I, II & III, the ABC, and ENIAC and its descendents. By so doing, Richie gives us a sense of the excitement present in this era in computing, and of the great leaps of faith required to couple new technology with old ideas and problems.

The Computer Pioneers begins with a brief overview of the work of Babbage, Leibniz and Kelvin, jumps from there to the “Hollerith tabulator” of the 1880s, and from there to the work of Vannevar Bush (famous later for his idea of the Memex) and Bush’s tackling of Kelvin’s unfinished problems. Richie then goes on to the war years, and ends with a description of EDVAC and IAS, IBM projects of the late 1940s and ‘50s. Although his depictions of the machines are fascinating and easy to digest, Richie puts most of his emphasis on the people involved, describing not only their ideas but their personalities and physical appearances. Bush, for instance, “wore spectacles perched on a long and bony nose and resembled a beardless Uncle Sam” (23). This makes for compelling and fast reading, although I occasionally wished for more technical description. One nice feature is the “appendix of machines” that Richie includes in the back of the book; this is a list of 17 of the early machines and brief descriptions of them. Although The Computer Pioneers is almost two decades old, since it ends its account in the 1950s it remains accurate (except for the comparisons of early machines to “modern home computers”).

To go further in-depth in the subject of codebreaking and its influence on the history of computers, I read the surprisingly fascinating Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park (F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp, eds., Oxford, 1993). This is a collection of personal recollections by men and women who worked at Bletchley Park in England during the Second World War. Bletchley was the top-secret center of British codebreaking during the war. Although information about it was not declassified until the 1970s by the British government, it has since become legendary for the monumental work that a staff of thousands did, in utter secrecy, breaking German codes and particularly the Enigma code. This decryption produced much-needed intelligence known as ULTRA, a development that many argue influenced the course of the war and ultimately helped the Allies to win. Decryption was accomplished by the labor of brilliant cryptoanalysts and computers such as the Bombe and Collossus, built from scratch under intense pressure and designed by eminences such as Alan Turing. Hundreds of women – many from the British navy, known as WRENs – helped the effort by working round the clock to operate the machines.

The stories in Codebreakers, told in brief essays, are terribly exciting. The sense of pressure that came from doing incredibly convoluted and detailed work, under a literal life-or-death scenario for the soldiers that depended on ULTRA, comes across clearly. I found the personal stories most interesting, however. Although I have never been a fan of war stories, I sped through this book. It is more thrilling than any fiction could be.

Fiction, however, has taken on the story of Bletchley Park. The movie Enigma (2001), based on the book by the same name by Robert Harris, overlays a fictional spy story on top of the real one of Bletchley Park. The somewhat convoluted plot involves a brilliant young codebreaker who has suffered a nervous breakdown over his girlfriend. He discovers after she disappears that she may have been a spy, and the rest of the movie is a tense race to find out what secrets she was hiding. Throughout everything the work of Bletchley Park is portrayed including a tense navel codebreaking session, a scene in one of the intercept stations, and shots of reconstructed Bombe computers.

Shot in a kind of period sepia-toned light, this movie invokes the same tenseness of war and mental effort that Codebreakers does. The movie isn’t necessarily always historically accurate – many famous figures are not portrayed, the workings of codebreaking procedure are glossed over, and the spy story is entirely fictional. Nonetheless, it is entertaining and evocative.

Further reading

Other books on the subject of the development of computers and their use in codebreaking in WWII include:

Information and Secrecy: Vannevar Bush, Ultra, and the Other Memex by Colin Burke (Scarecrow Press, 1994)
This hard-to-find book is about the well-known information scientist and his role in American intelligence work during WWII. The author focuses on the connection between intelligence work and early information science. He writes in the introduction, “during my ongoing search for evidence about the machines for the codebreakers, I began to realize that it would be impossible to separate the histories of the new technologies for cryptoanalysis from those for the library and information processing” (x). Contains a foreword by Michael Buckland.

The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing by Martin Davis (W. W. Norton, 2000)
This, as the subtitle indicates, is about the logic and mathematical developments behind the computer, from Leibniz in the 17th century to Turing in the 20th. Eminently readable (although full of math), this is an unusual and interesting look at the intellectual design behind early machines (as well as the ones we use today).

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (Avon, 1999)
This novel, like all of Stephenson’s works, has a plot that goes all over the place – and one of those places is a story of cryptographic intelligence work in WWII. The other major story is of a data haven hacker in the 20th century, and these two plots interact in surprising ways.