Posts Tagged ‘Computer History Museum’

Grace’s Place: A Gallery that Remembers

September 17, 2012

We are just a couple of weeks away from celebrating women in computing.   As you prepare to attend Grace Hopper Celebration in Baltimore, I want to share with you how I celebrate Grace Murray Hopper every day.

Computer technology has changed a great deal since I began with punched tape and cards, mag tape, and green and white bar paper.  Knowing the hardware and its limitations helped me understand why systems were developed as they were and how they evolved over time.  But,  when technology changed , students and others began to lose that understanding.  From an historical perspective, if you don’t know where we have been, how can you understand where we are going?

This question sparked an idea.  At first, it was a little idea … help students understand where computers have been and how fast they are changing.  After talking with some of my colleagues, we decided to get a few display cases and show students (and others) about computers.  I thought I would disassemble a few computers so students could see the difference between parts, such as a hard drive and a floppy drive.  Then I thought we could show some old things and people would get the idea.  It was to be a “little project.”

Well, the “little project” took on a life of its own.  Once people knew we were interested in historical and interesting pieces, we received lots of donations of machines, of peripherals, of memorabilia, and everything else you can imagine.  Suddenly we had much more than our few display cases could hold, and all of it was great!

We started “small” (by today’s standards) with a few display cases and some wire shelves.We now have all of those things and more.  We have a fairly complete set of early PC’s (including “clones”) and Apple products (anyone want to donate an Apple I to the collection?).  But, we also have old “dumb” terminals and Heathkit analog computers.  We have modems from acoustic couplers to smart device modems, examples of tapes, cards, and a variety of disks, lots of CPUs, tubes, telephones, smart devices, and more.  We have old minicomputers, terminals and decwriters, and the power  cord, peripheral cords,  and other components from an old mainframe, We have advertising from various eras, and posters.  A museum in spirit, even if it is only a gallery in size.

This gallery is called “Grace’s Place” in honor of Grace Murray Hopper, of course.  From the  beginning, it was obvious that it should be named after her.  We began with an area that had a few pictures on the wall, but no real use.  So, we “commandeered” it for Grace’s Place.  We did not ask permission, but rather were well prepared to ask forgiveness when someone objected.  No one has.  Recently we moved some of our exhibits into a lounge using the same Hopperian philosophy that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.

But, there were other reasons it was appropriate to name the exhibition after Grace.  She is, after all, an early pioneer in computing.  She is well-recognized for her work with the COBOL programming language, which still runs a significant number of major applications world-wide.   Without COBOL, computers would not have entered the business environment.  She also is recognized as the originator of the idea of making computer languages accessible to people solving business problems, and hence should be important to students learning to code.  Grace Murray Hopper believed it was critical to educate young people, especially about computers, and this exhibit would do that.

However, perhaps the best reason to name it after Grace is because she understood the importance of making things simple when explaining complex topics, and found it useful to use tangible items to help with that explanation.  Anyone who heard her speak in person or on television has head about a “Grace Hopper nanosecond.”   As I heard the story, Dr. Hopper was frustrated by admirals who could not understand why it took so long for information to get from the earth to space. She asked for a piece of wire that was just under a foot.  With that piece of wire, she could illustrate how far electricity could move in one billionth of second (a nanosecond), and thus the admirals were able to understand that there were “many nanoseconds” between the earth and space objects.  When she would speak, Dr. Hopper would distribute “nanoseconds” to the participants and encouraged them not to waste even a microsecond.

Yes, we have a “Hopper nanosecond” in Grace’s Place, with an explanation.  We also have a replica of Dr. Hopper’s log book (the original of which is in the Smithsonian) that included a taped down moth that she found in the computer when she claimed the computer had a “bug.”

Over the years, though, Grace’s Place has grown in depth too.  One patron had a collection of typewriters that she donated as “predecessors to word processors,” and we added a collection of “computing devices,” including slide rules, calculators, abacus and a Marchand comptometer. We have toys that depict computer parts and proudly show Barbie the Computer Engineer.  A local artist created a piece to demonstrate the difference between “spaghetti code” of the early years from “structured code” written today.  (It is multipurpose in that it can also explain the problems of today’s BI systems with lots of messy data being fed into a BI system.)  We have covers of Time magazine that depict stages of computer development.  My favorite is from January 23, 1950 cover which shows a stylized Mark III computer that happens to have a navy cap and sleeves (that I think gives a nod to Dr. Hopper).  Since the museum is named after Hopper, we have information about the naval ship, the Amazing Grace, also named after Grace Murray Hopper.  Finally, we have our very own “Gingerbread Mansion” built as a Christmas decoration by our IT support staff; it is their depiction of a gingerbread house made totally out of computer components.

You can spend a lot of time in Grace’s Place (and you are all invited to do so) because there is so much squeezed into a small space (and, I continue to get more materials in on a regular basis).  When the College of Business builds its new building (date unstated), there is a place for Grace’s Place – in a prominent location with nice shelving and lighting.  But, it will always be “Grace’s Place” because even the donor funding the new location believes that is the appropriate name for the collection.

Babbage’s Difference Engine Number 2

April 22, 2010

I love history. I do not read as much about history as I should, but I love to visit places, learn their history and, of course, visit their museums. In addition, I am a geek. I love computers and what they can do. In fact, I like these two subjects so much I started a computer museum here at the University called Grace’s Place. So when I had the opportunity recently, I jumped at the idea of visiting Babbage’s Difference Engine. To many, this engine is the beginning of computing as we know it. Certainly Babbage’s later machine, the Analytical Engine, is a computer in the modern day sense of the word. I would love to see how a 19th century inventor thought of computing, but Babbage never built his Difference Engine. However …..

Charles Babbage was a mathematician, inventor and philosopher. He was troubled by imprecision. He hated imprecision so much that he once wrote Lord Tennyson to note the imprecision of his poem, “The Vision of Sin.” In that poem Tennyson said, “Every minute dies a man, Every minute one is born.” But, Babbage wrote that the poem could not be factual or the population of the earth would be flat. He suggested instead that Lord Tennyson change the poem to read “Every minute dies a man, And one and a sixteenth is born.” Further he said “I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”

But, I digress. Back in the 1930s, all mathematical tables were computed by hand. (I realize that my students will probably have never seen a mathematical table since they now get all of those values directly from some computing device. They will just need to trust me that there was a time when people did arithmetic by hand and people used tables.) These tables were critical to computations needed for building, astronomy and navigation. Even minor errors in the tables could cause buildings to fall and sailors to be lost forever. And there were many errors. So Charles took off to create an “engine” that would do the computations exactly. How he came up with the idea of the Difference Engine, I cannot imagine. But, Difference Engine 1 was designed to include approximately 25,000 parts, weigh fifteen tons, and stand 8 ft high. He took his idea to the British Government for funding and they too thought this was a good idea, so they granted him funds to build the engine.

Unfortunately, Babbage was not a good project manager. He was, after all, a perfectionist, and so his project suffered from scope creep as he continually improved on his design. In addition, he was not an easy man for whom to work (remember his writing to Tennyson to change his poem?), and he suffered some significant losses close together. Needless to say, he did not get the project finished.

Learning this is important for two reasons. First, it was a surprise to me because I had learned that the problem was with the precision of tooling in the 19th century. Apparently that was not true. Second, think about how many inventions and developments never happened because of bad planning. It has been said that this first experience with calculating devices so soured the British Government that it would not fund projects of this type for some time which, in turn, stunted the development of calculating devices. I wonder how much more advanced our capabilities would be had Babbage been a good project manager!

Babbage was not discouraged and he went and designed Difference Engine 2. This one was smaller and had less moving parts, but the British Government had no interest in funding the project and he could not get funding from any other source. After his death, Babbage’s son gave the plans for this engine to the London Science Museum. In 1989 (about 150 years after its design), the London Science Museum decided to try to build Difference Engine 2. They used Babbage’s plans and 19th Century manufacturing precision. Where Babbage’s plans were incomplete, the builders used other functionality that Babbage had designed. In the end, it was all Babbage’s design. It was tested at the London Science Museum and returned the answer for a polynomial to 31 digits correctly!

It turns out that there are two Difference Engine 2 in existence. The London Science Museum ran out of money before it could finish the original piece; they had built the engine but did not have the funding to build the printing component (on the left in my photos) of the engine. They approached Nathan Myhrvold for funding. He provided the funding with the stipulation that they build him a replica of their engine.

Myhrvold agreed to display the difference engine in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California for a year after taking delivery. It actually has been there longer than that because Mr. Myhrvold needs to fortify his living room floor before he can move the engine there.

So, during spring break my husband and I visited the Computer History Museum and Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2. This is like visiting history that even the people involved never saw. It was a great experience.

I must tell you that it is a beautiful machine! The bronze set off from the black frame is just lovely. But all of that paled next to the idea that this piece of equipment was designed almost 200 years ago. It was like going back into history and seeing what inventors were doing. One can almost imagine James West and Artemus Gordon using this engine on the Wild Wild West (this was a television show that had detectives using fanciful inventions of modern conveniences as they might have looked in the Victorian Era).

We were lucky enough to be at the museum when they were demonstrating this engine. Someone literally cranked the numbers! Remember, Babbage didn’t have electricity. So, he had to control for sloppy cranking too. One put weights on the structure to control the polynomial that you wanted and cranked away. In the front you saw the gears moving around. But in the back you saw levers and switches that controlled all of the carrying that was necessary for the computations. It was captivating. At the end, the printer gave us the value of the polynomial and was ready to start again. If we wanted, it would also prepare a mold for a copper plate so the values could go right from the computer to the printing press. Just imagine!

To me, the experience was a lot like finding a long lost Renoir or Monet painting that no one knew about and having the privilege of being one of the few people who could enjoy the experience. It was like being a little kid again and being amazed. Yes, I know that makes me a geek.

But, go ahead and look at the machine. I have posted some photos in an earlier blog, “wordless Wednesday” and watch this thing work. Direct your browser to the Computer History Museum and watch the engine work. You too may be captivated. For more information about the history, there is a YouTube video. See the process of unpacking the machine when it arrived in Mountain View. Also watch the program from the opening of the Babbage Engine exhibit at the Computer History Museum.

Yes, it is history. Why is history important? For two reasons. First, it is important to see how far we have come in computing in order to project where we might go. Second, it is important to “get into the head” of great inventors to help ourselves learn to invent better so that we can solve the many problems of the 21st Century. In this case, the history is also beautiful and mesmorizing. Check it out!