[SIGCIS-Members] FW: Questions on "Firsts" in personal computing and computer hardware

Ceruzzi, Paul CeruzziP at si.edu
Mon Mar 10 20:08:35 PDT 2014

I talked a little about the Programma 101 and its US counterparts, the HP 9100A and Wang LOCI, in my book, _A History of Modern Computing_, chapter 7.  (The book has been translated into Italian.)  I compared it to the PDP-8 and especially the LINC, which Joe November has written about in his book on biomedical computing. Tom has begun to unpack the "first" problem in his excellent paper in the current Annals, on the stored program principle. The Programma 101 was a very capable machine. It is unfortunate that the fuss over the "first" personal computer obscures what those machines could do. They could execute a sequence of instructions. Some of them could do floating point. Some of them had conditional branching. They used electronic circuits. What if Robert Oppenheimer had one of these at Los Alamos in 1944?

Paul Ceruzzi

From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [members-bounces at sigcis.org] on behalf of Thomas Haigh [thaigh at computer.org]
Sent: Monday, March 10, 2014 7:15 PM
To: members at sigcis.org
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] FW: Questions on "Firsts" in personal computing and computer hardware

[Forwarded for Giuditta Parolini – Tom]
Da: Giuditta Parolini <giudittaparolini at gmail.com<mailto:giudittaparolini at gmail.com>>
Data: 04 marzo 2014 00.49.25 GMT+01.00
A: sigcis <members at SIGCIS.org<mailto:members at SIGCIS.org>>
Oggetto: Priority controversies in computer science

Dear List Members,
I am writing with a request of help about priority controversies in the history of computing. I know it is (luckily) an out-of-date topic among historians, but unfortunately the appeal of 'firsts' in the popular discourse on science and technology is still incredibly strong and this leads to the propagation of unreliable information, from partial truths to unforgivable lies.

My case is related to Italian computer science and in specific to the manufacturing of the mainframe Elea 9003 (claimed to be the first full transistorized commercial computer sold on the market from 1959 onwards) and the electronic calculator Programma 101 (P101) (presented in 1965 and claimed to be the first PC). In the last book on the topic, written by a journalist, you could read section headings such as "The cradle of informatics is in Italy", "Elea 9003: the Italian people invented the computer" and sentences such as "In 1975 the PC had already been there for ten years and it had been invented by an Italian [with reference to the P101]". The translation is faithful to the Italian original and you can guess the general standard of the book.

As I am now revising a book manuscript for the general public on Mario Tchou, the head of the laboratory who developed the mainframe Elea 9003, I would like to set - for what is possible in a trade book - the record straight (even against myself who naively wrote that the P101 was a desktop computer in a conference proceeding). Could you please help me to deal with these priority controversies?
- What was the first fully transistorized mainframe that was not just a prototype, but sold on the market in tens? [Some of the candidates seem to me the IBM 608 (announced 1955, delivered 1957), Philco Transac models S-1000 and S-2000 (introduced 1957), CDC 1604 (announced 1958), IBM 1401 (announced 1959)]
- Which is the most important aspect for which the P101 was not a PC? [I would say that it is because it was not 'an information machine', but just a programmable calculator and so fulfilled only one of the tasks for which general purpose computers are used]

I would also appreciate very much if you could give me references of articles or books in which it is spelled out clearly why priority controversies are detrimental in understanding the history of computer development.

Let me thank you in advance for any help you can give me.
Best regards,

Giuditta Parolini
Postdoctoral fellow
Berliner Zentrum für Wissensgeschichte and Technische Universität Berlin

Office address:
Technische Universität Berlin
Institut für Philosophie, Literatur-, Wissenschafts- und Technikgeschichte
Sekretariat H72
Straße des 17 Juni, 135
10623 Berlin

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