[SIGCIS-Members] On the continuity of calling computing artifacts 'brains'

Aristotle Tympas tympas at phs.uoa.gr
Sat Jan 31 15:35:49 PST 2009

There certainly were references to mechanical brains before the electronic
ones, and there were also references to electric brains. Here is a 1948
quote, which I circulate to the list because it shows what someone like
Edmund Berkeley could read while he was preparing his 1949 book:

"During the war when paint was hard to get everywhere, steel
power lines in tropic India rusted and fell. A power company
in that far-off land had to find a way to send the same amount
of electricity over the remaining transmission lines. Logically
they brought the problem to America’s largest electromechanical
“brain” at Georgia Tech. The brain has “thought
out” similar problems from Florida to Pennsylvania"(0. Fanning, “Tech
Electric Brain ‘Fixcs’ India Power,” Atlanta J., p.2-B, July 25, 1948: the
same article also described to this network analyzer as a 'giant brain').

For colleagues who may have a further interest in the issue:
The quote is included in a 1996 article that I wrote for the Annals of the
History of Computing (Annals, Volume 18, Number 4). In this I argued that
there is deep continuity in the ideology of calling computing artifacts
'brains' (and intelligent machines, more generally), and that it is this
continuity that explains why there was not much objection to the
post-World War II presentation of the electronic computer as a thinking
machine: the society was habituated to such presentations for many decades
before the 1940s. At the time I had little idea of how deep this
continuity actually was. Every genre of pre-electronic computing artifacts
that I had the opportunity to study since then (used in the context of
computing electrification or more generally) was uniformly thought as
capable of artificial intelligence. The network analyzer of the interwar
period looked physically like the ENIAC. But even something as humble as a
slide rule (not to say a desktop calculator or a planimeter) was
habitually called "brainy".

Αριστοτέλης Τύμπας / Aristotle Tympas
Assistant Professor, History of Technology in Modernity
University of Athens, Greece
Webpage: http://www.phs.uoa.gr/hst/Tympas.html

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