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

Aron Levy aronpublic at gmail.com
Sun Sep 29 21:34:10 PDT 2013

On that note, after discussing with a friend of mine, the thought of sourcing nearly 17,500 vacuum tubes, many I which are no longer available seems to render the idea of rebuilding ENIAC somewhat remote.

Unless Washington and Lee happens to have an entire warehouse full of tubes! (Stranger things have been known to happen.)

Aron Levy

I typed this with my thumbs. Please excuse my brevity.

On Sep 30, 2013, at 12:11 AM, "Thomas Haigh" <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:

> [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
> involved.
> 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
> James
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