Appendix 3: Brief Historical Background Computing


See longer descriptions “A Chip On Her Shoulder” website “Computing in History”.

Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage

In the 1840s, Charles Babbage dreamed of computing machines but his technology was pre-digital. A cranky character, he couldn’t get his dreams realized, requiring a woman to clean up and organize his dream fragments. Sigh. Ada Lovelace found him worthy of her mathematically trained imagination and produced detailed notes on a translation from an Italian who listened to a Babbage lecture. A complicated calculation in her explanatory notes required organizational principles comparable to modern loops and subroutines. Hence, Lady Lovelace is often considered the “first programmer”. However, her imagination and (possibly genetic) poetic talents envisioned a machine capable of treating more than numbers, actually symbols, and even patterns of symbols. Hence, she might claim the origins of “computational thinking”, beyond code, into the now popularized cognitive styles required for modern life. Babbage called her the “Enchantress of Number”, in respect. She died at age 36.

Sputnik Launched Our Careers

The Sputnik Satellite launched by Russia in 1957 shocked USA into attempting its own (several flops). The Congress and Eisenhower administration established many science and technology education programs and shoveled money to NSF, NACA (later NASA), and newly established ARPA (Advanced Projects Research Agency). First generation college graduates began technical careers, now decaying into retirements.

Reagan, Star Wars, and Computing Professionals

The Reagan ‘Star Wars’ (officially ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’) sought to build a missile shield system within the parameters of existing treaties. Computer scientists balked at a complex system and reduced, but did not eliminate, major funding expenditures. Debates forced attention to complex real-time systems. The information-oriented computing profession matured as it grappled with seasoned arguments from WW II physicists. The ‘Risks Digest’ was founded.

Japanese Fifth Generation Systems Project

The Fifth Generation project was a Japanese industry-government initiative to develop a family of computers well suited to civilian applications requiring reasoning, often referred to as Knowledge Information Processing. Major international conferences were held in Tokyo in the mid-1980s to display their evolving parallel architectures. USA and European computing industry were then in turmoil from the changes in generations among large,medium, and smaller, PC sized, computers. Many companies on the verge of folding up formed consortia to share research results and accelerate their capabilities to absorb new technology. As progress slowed and the Japanese economy tanked, the Fifth Generation descended into oblivion.

Total Information Awareness,

The TIA (Total Information Awareness, aka ‘Terrorist Information Awareness’) project formed after 9/11 under the aegis of DARPA. Its goal was to improve collection and distribution of data about citizens and foreign visitors with terrorist objectives. Its honcho, Admiral John Poindexter, had attracted Congressional attention after the Iran-Contra affair. The TIA project symbol was that creepy eye ball from the US dollar bill. Congress scuttled TIA, which sent its projects to the NSA,among many revealed by Snowden in 2013.

Googlearchy, Search Engine Dominance

When Google gained dominance over search, many productivity techniques went by the wayside, e.g. clustering into related topics, meta searching across multiple search engines, alternative ranking algorithms, visualizations, and merging of related searches. Power law distributions emerged with a few sites gaining most hits, getting richer faster, and serving as defaults for links. A long tail of pages with fewer hits showed high value for the few users who came together in common interest on a page’s topic, but with little potential for marketization. Worries about biases emerged as targeted advertising fostered ‘filter bubbles’. Rapid dissemination of posts by user and algorithmic editing produced the ‘fake news’ phenomena observed in the 2016 US presidential election.

About Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law describes a historical pattern of exponentially improving computing power. Consider ‘exponential’ like these:

place 1 grain of rice on the upper left cell on a chess board, then 2, then 4, doubling each time around the board. Reaching the 20th step requires more than a million grains, at 40 steps more than a billion, and at 64 more grains than produce if the earth, including oceans, were all rice fields. Now, that is a whopping big number, just from doubling 63 times.

Here is another way to appreciate exponential growth:

Suppose there is a big pond with lily pads that double in number every day. First there is just a corner of the pond. Imagine some happy little frogs jumping across a few lily pads. Eventually the pads cover 1/4 of the pond, then wow, the next day 1/2 then all of the pond surface. That was fast at the end! What next? Maybe the pads choke each other or morph into a land variety or jump to another pond, but that is a different story.

Computing History Quiz

Try this quiz matching names and terms with epochs of computing.