- Series: Revolutions of Science
- Paperback: 106 pages
- Publisher: Totem Books (April 23, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1840462507
- ISBN-13: 978-1840462500
- Product Dimensions: 4.4 x 0.6 x 6.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,308,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Turing and the Universal Machine: The Making of the Modern Computer (Revolutions of Science)
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Try Jon Agar's Turing and the Universal Machine. His excellent treatment [is] highly readable, of general interest and a useful introduction to the subject. -- New Scientist magazine, May 26th, 2001
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Take out a Swiss Army knife and have a good look at it. I have one here. It has the full range of gizmos and attachments. There is a pair of scissors, a retractable pen, a ruler, a magnetic Phillips screw-driver, some tweezers, a small blade and an emergency blade. There is even a cuticle pusher and a nail file, essential for any well-manicured soldier. Nothing to get stones out of horses hooves, but very handy nevertheless.
Swiss Army knives are versatile machines: they can be put to many different uses. Other machines are far more restricted. A lawnmower, for example, can mow lawns, but not much else. It has been designed for a specific purpose, and the function of each part of it follows. The handle is there so that it can be pushed by an adult human. The engine will power the blades, which would be exhausting to turn by hand. The blades are set so that grass is cut to an inch off the ground, the height we like lawns to be. While the lawnmower can be put to other purposes propping open a door, perhaps it will usually not be very effective. No one tries to fly the Atlantic on a lawnmower. Flying requires different kinds of special-purpose machines.
Some devices are more versatile because they are simple. A sharpened stick, for example, can be used as a lever, or to cook a kebab, or to knit a sweater. Indeed, more uses can probably be found for a simple sharpened stick than for a Victorinox Pocket Size MiniChamp II my top-of-the-range Swiss knife. Yet, despite their varying versatility, Swiss Army knives, lawnmowers and sharpened sticks are all a similar sort of machine. Even the knife and the stick are, in the end, special-purpose machines, and are radically different to an astonishing device built for the first time in the middle of the last century: a machine of universal application.
The Blue Pig
An early example could be found in Manchester in 1951. It filled a room, and broke down regularly. A team of engineers tended it, replacing the valves or vacuum tubes as they blew. They called it the Blue Pig. If you had £150,000 you could buy one of these machines for yourself, although there would be a queue of military establishments and scientific laboratories ahead of you. Three years earlier, the first ever machine of this type had been built a hundred yards away. That one was an experiment, rows of electronic tubes and a tangle of gutta-percha- covered wires filling what resembled a set of bookshelves. The 1951 model gleamed the valves hidden in banks of metal cupboards, a shiny central console with rows of switches and lights.
Late in the year, the Blue Pig had some visitors. They were from a childrens radio programme, and had come to hear the Pig sing. The engineers prepared the machine, and, after a moments hesitation, a gratingly harsh but stately National Anthem blared forth. The radio presenter was delighted. The patriotic hymn was followed by Baa Baa Black Sheep and finally the dancehall jazz of In the Mood. The Blue Pig had trouble with the last tune: it improvised some notes of its own and then fell into silence. The machine, concluded the radio presenter, was not, after all, in the mood.
With the visitors gone, the engineers returned to another task, but with the same machine. The Pig could produce poetry, doggerel love letters. Heres an example:
You are my fellow feeling. My affection curiously
clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns
to your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my
The Blue Pig could do mathematics too. Much faster than any human mathematician, it made calculation after calculation. What it searched for were moments when a certain function the Riemann Zeta function took the value of zero. It was something of a fishing expedition, but if they were lucky and found an unexpected zero, then a famous mathematical hypothesis would be proven wrong. Despite the Pigs all-night efforts, none was found. This was a particular disappointment to a middle-aged man of awkward manner, who had achieved early fame proving another hypothesis wrong and at the very same moment had come up with the idea now expressed in massive material form by the Blue Pig. This man was Alan Turing, and the renaissance Pig one machine producing music, poetry and mathematics was MUC: the Manchester University Computer.
Computers nowadays look nothing like the Blue Pig. But the machine that sits on your desk shares the same ability as its predecessor from half a century ago: it is a universal machine. They present a strange case in the history of technology. They are machines of apparently limitless applicability, yet they are also the drudges of the modern world. Numbering millions, they have a typical working day made up of repetition, repetition, repetition. How can the invention of this remarkable device be explained? The question is the same as asking: what sort of society would ever need such a thing?
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I am surprised that the author didn't fully develop the swiss knife analogy with which he began the book. In a real sense any stand-alone computer is a special purpose machine because it is limited by its user. It is only when programming is universally understood or, better yet, a transparent part of using the machine that we have a truly universal machine. And that is developing right under our noses--the internet has in just a few short years completely changed the educational experience (given the power of the internet my kids have never had to worry about not being able to find the right books in the local library), it has dramatically changed the marketplace (the most obscure books or materials are but a click away), it continues to redefine modern media (Drudge?) and to churn out innovation. But is the latest step towards a truly universal machine--the Internet--the result of society's changes or the cause?
We are blind to the significance of the computer because we are surrounded by its effects. Something huge is coming--the machine envisioned by Turing is still being developed--will we be ready for it, will we be able to understand its power, will we even recognize it when it arrives?
The author filters his story through the lens of a Dickensian view of industrial development. It would seem that the nineteenth century was a hellish world of alienated workers slaving like drones in chaotic, out-of-control facories that cried out for organization and control. This despite the fact that the nineteenth century saw the greatest increases in standards of living in history.
Curiously, the author confuses the nineteenth century quest for a universal computing maching with the eighteenth century quest for The Longitude. It would seem that the development of the computer was spurred on by the need to keep the Royal Navy off the rocks at the Isles of Scilly, a problem which had been resolved in the mid-eighteenth century by John Harrison's method of determining longitude, which required only relatively simple navigational computations. There is precious little discussion of the insurance industry, whose growth during the nineteenth century created a need for detailed and lengthy actuarial tables was the original impetus behind Charles Babbage's efforts to build a 'difference engine' in the nineteenth century.
The material on Turing and twentieth century work towards a universal computing machine is better. But even here, the author's biases show through. The material on the Nazi engineer Konrad Zuse isn't always covered in works of this sort. Yet Zuse is portrayed as "only a young engineer, in a lowly position in a large company..." (p. 45). This sort of thing has long since grown tiresome. One wishes the author would simply get on with the story.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this history is the author's penchant for describing people as if they were computers. Right off the bat, the author characterizes us as living in a "two-tier modern world of general-and special-purpose humans...built in the nineteenth century." (p. 11) Or later, when the British civil service is described as being comprised of "generalist 'intellectuals' and rule-following 'mechanicals'..." (p. 143)
And therein lies the true theme of this book. We live in a two-class society, made up of intellectuals who think for us and the rest of us, who follow the rules they create. And we are all quite happily managed by the electronic computer. This thesis would be laughable if the author set it up as a straw-man, to then attack in moral outrage. But incredibly, Professor Agar seems to view it as the natural and desirable order of things. It makes for very interesting, if somewhat naive, reading.
If you have never read a history of computing and are interested in the subject, thenthis isn't really a bad book. It's just that there are so many books out there that are better than this one. I'd suggest a search on "computer history" here on Amazon. You will get a list of a dozen or so histories that tell the story with more distance and less bias than this volume.
Then things get strange as Agar jumps to an in-depth explanation of the basis of modern mathematics (way over my head) with a discussion of Hilbert, Godel, Riemann, Cantor, etc. The book then winds up with a discussion of Turing's contributions to mathematics and code breaking, with an overview of British code-breaking efforts and post-war computer development. All of this overlaid with some peculiar attempts to philosophize on the nature and future of computers.
Whew! You can't do justice to all this in a 150 page paperback, and he doesn't. But the book is well-written and travels down some less-traveled roads, so it's a fun read for computer folk.