Ch 10 Computers

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite demonstrates a computer of the future, connected to a global library, in 1967. (Library of Congress).

Standard histories of mass media ignore the impact of computers, which indicates the extent to which the historiographic and theoretical approaches to media history are badly askew. As we note in Chapter 10 of Revolutions in Communication,  the impact that computing had on the mass media is significant from the 21st century perspective.  But computing also had an impact from the first decades of its practical  development in the mid-20th century.

For example, in 1952, CBS news worked with Univac computer manufacturer Sperry-Rand to help project the winner of the presidential election. Based on  voting patterns in previous elections, and comparing those to incoming returns from representative precincts, the Univac programmers projected a landslide  for Dwight Eisenhower with 438 electoral votes against his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, with 93 electoral votes.  The official count would turn out to be 442 and 89 electoral votes.

The landslide projection baffled theCBS network news team and the computer programmers.   Although Eisenhower was the odds-on favorite to win, the race was expected to be much closer.   In fact,

The CBS news producers and the programmers thought the Univac  data was so out of line with other predictions that they did not report it, claiming that they had some kind of computer malfunction.

The next morning, reviewers found it charming that computers had such a hard time replacing humans. “The CBS pride was called the Univac, which at a critical moment refused to work with anything like the efficiency of a human being,” TV reviewer Jack Gould wrote in The New York Times. “This mishap caused the CBS stars, Walter Cronkite, Ed Murrow and Eric Sevareid to give Univac a rough ride for the rest of the evening, in a most amusing sidelight to the CBS coverage.”

According to the National Academy of Engineering, the Univac programmers grew nervous and changed the parameters to produce a different result. “They later confessed that the initial projection of electoral votes had been right on the mark,” the NAE said.

Discussion questions

  1. Curves in the road: Did Microsoft  really get away with highway robbery when it licensed its operating system to IBM?  And how about Apple and Xerox?
  2. Moore’s Law:  What is it and does it still apply?
  3. Computing and the media — At first it was charming, and kind of funny that computers were threatening to replace humans. But digital media replaced the old media structure. How did that happen? What were some of the forces at work?
  4. Straights, nerds and hips — Robert X. Cringley says there were three types of computer programmers and developers: the straight “lumpen” programmers (working for IBM);  the nerds (working for Microsoft);  and the hips (working for Apple). Which group contributed the most? Which group had the most fun? Which group is on top today?

People & Events

Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Herman Hollerith, Grace Hopper, Vannevar Bush, William Shockley, Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Englebart, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates

Documentary Videos

  1. Triumph of the Nerds, Part I, start at 9:00.  Part II, and Part III. Also PBS Website   There are two Nerds series with a total of six two-hour episodes (The second one is about networks, and its listed under Chapter 11 on this site). Most of the major figures in computing and network history are profiled in the Nerds series. There’s also an interesting  personal narrative by Robert X. Cringely.
  2. Interview with Bill Gates, Sept. 2013, in which he describes the famous “control-alt-delete” function as “a mistake.” CNET article Sept. 26, 2013.
  3. Doron Swade displays Babbage’s difference engine in this 2008 Wired video.  Also, Nathan Myhrvold & Doron Swade discuss Babbage’s difference engine.
  4. John Graham-Cumming talks about Babbage’s machine in a terrific  TED talk.
  5. Codebreakers:  Bletchley Park — An in-depth tour of the famed first computer center at Bletchley Park, where World War II Enigma signals were intercepted and decoded.
  6. Codebreaker  — a 2011 documentary — tells the story of Alan Turing, whose World War II codebreaking helped save millions of  lives.   In 1954, Turing committed suicide at age 41 after problems with the law and prejudice against gay men.  
  7. Touring Bletchley Park – Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug, 2012.
  8. Mavis Batey, Bletchley park maven, Washington Post, Nov 2013.
  9. The mother of all computer demos — Doug Englebart (January 30, 1925 – July 2, 2013) gave this demo of the interactive mouse-driven computer of the future on Dec. 8, 1968.
  10. Jean Jennings Bartik, defense computing leader in WWII and the cold war, biography now available.  (KC Star, Dec. 2013)
  11. Apple Mac “1984″ ad — YouTube link often breaks, but if this doesnt work, the ad is frequently uploaded and can be found with a search.
  12. Long lost 1980s video of Steve Wozniak leading the Denver Apple Pi club in a spoof pledge of allegiance.  Other Wozniak videos were uncovered in 2013, such as this one describing college pranks by the Woz.  This just shows that early programmers and developers had a lot of fun.  Randy Wiggington of Apple talked about the near-disaster surrounding the launch of the Mac.

Origins of computing

  1. Z3: Germany’s WWII digital computer.
  2. Colossus: The secrets of UK’s Bletchley Park’s code-breaking computers, by Jack Copeland.
  3. ENIAC – The press conference that changed the world, by Dianne Martin, GWU.
  4. Finding the women who programmed the world’s first electronic computer. PRI. Although, actually, it was not the first.

General histories of computing

  1. History of computing,  assembled by Mike Muuss, with an emphasis on ENIAC and the US Army. Site has a wealth of information and is well worth exploring despite a somewhat limited design style.
  2. Kruchev visits IBM — strange tale of silicon valley history from 1959.  Fast Company, Oct. 2014.c c
  3. Visual history of video game consoles — Showing about a dozen of the 300 systems that have been marketed since 1975.
  4. Fark.com Photoshop contest,  September 2004, showing the different captions for the submarine control room photo supposedly the “home computer of the future.”  Snopes.com site explains the computer of the future controversy.
  5. We owe it to the hippies — Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair, says Stewart Brand. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution.
  6. Steve Jobs original name for the  iMac was  “MacMan”  — Story by Ken Segall, May 2012.
  7. The international language of science used to be Latin. Now it is Scientific Linnux.   Chicago Trib, Oct. 28, 2013.
  8. Obituary for William C. Lowe, IBM vp who headed personal computer division.  NY Times  Oct. 30, 2013.
  9. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and … Morris Tanenbaum?  Inventor of silicon transistor, Newark NJ Star-Ledger, Nov 10, 2013.
  10. Happy birthday, Moore’s Law – by Robert Samuelson, April 19, 2015.
  11. What is code? by Paul Ford, Bloomberg, June 2015 –  An excellent overview of the history and development of computer code.
  12. Apple doesnt want to pay its taxes, Intercept Aug 16 2016

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