[SIGCIS-Members] Response on course design from James Sumner

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Sun Sep 29 21:11:23 PDT 2013

[James is still having problems sending to the list, but has a good reply
below. Tom]

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Seeking help -- if you could design your ideal
Computer/Information History course, what would you include?
Date: Sun, 29 Sep 2013 11:11:34 +0100
From: James Sumner <james.sumner at manchester.ac.uk>
To: members at sigcis.org

Dear all

What an excellent question -- and it's remarkable to see that the discussion
very quickly worked its way round to early hardware and games. My first
thought before seeing the follow-up messages was to give the students a task
something like this:

"It's 1951. The firm you work for has just announced an electronic digital
computer -- the first to be offered for commercial sale. You have no
established competition, but this also means you're promoting an unfamiliar
idea. Many of the people you're trying to sell to are happy relying on human
clerical labour or existing punched-card technology, which they see as cheap
and reliable. And many people more generally don't have a clear sense of
what 'electronic digital computer' means at all.

"Your big opportunity to do something about this arrives with a major public
exhibition on new science and technology of the future, to be hosted at
[insert name of suitable big expo venue]. Your firm has been offered a prime
space of [insert dimensions] for a display introducing computers to the
public. Your task is to build the display. You have X weeks."

This is loosely based on the situation facing the British firm Ferranti when
it produced the Nimrod machine (http://www.goodeveca.net/nimrod/)
for the 1951 Festival of Britain. There was not enough time to implement a
full-scale working computer, and in any case there were questions about
whether a complex machine would be either reliable enough or intelligible
enough for public display. The engineers instead put together some
relatively straightforward electronics to play a simple interactive game
(Nim -- one step up from tic-tac-toe), and housed it in an enormous,
imposing case. The result worked well enough for attracting column inches,
but was judged a partial failure on the marketing side because it didn't
lead people to find out more about fundamental computer concepts.

The idea behind this kind of project, of course, is to play to the strengths
of a class with a mixture of study backgrounds and skills. A clear
understanding of the conceptual principles of digital information processing
has to be present and correct, but there are avenues for taking the social
history seriously -- what kind of promotional technique were conventional to
1950s audiences? What sections of the public would show up to this
exhibition? Would it be wise to address possible labour fears? -- and for
thinking about the practicalities of display, the style to aim for in any
written materials, and the performance aspects of any demonstration

It might even rival "costumed battle on the front quad" if it could really
be built, assuming the students followed Ferranti in going for the
big-and-imposing spectacle approach.

The main headache would be in determining what rules to play by on the
practical construction. Insisting on only "materials that could have existed
in 1951" would create major problems if rigorously enforced, and would focus
a lot of time and attention on elements which would probably be most
interesting to a small minority of students. Tolerating too much simulation,
on the other hand, would defeat the key point that equipment was inherently
unreliable, and that the question of whether digital automation was
worthwhile or not was still a live one. Perhaps experienced replicationists
might be able to advise here?

All best

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