References and materials

Tom Jennings

You might take a look at my "What is World Power Systems" rant, here. It carries the flavor of the approach I take to technology.

Here are some of my references for the class of 22 Jan 2003.I'll eventually post my outline here; this is more or less a set of sources I've come across in my work. They're not in any order; some of the original materials will be utterly alien to you, but that's half the fun; scan for the sense of wierdness and aesthetic of the time (1940's, 1950's).

Obviously I don't expect anyone to read all the books (see further below), but if you had to pick one to read this year, I'd pick Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It's kinda dry, but revolutionary. And short (always a virtue).

Here is a very brief description of a peculiar and short-lived information-display technology that had an interesting influence on computer art. The charactron display tube was designed for military tactical displays and microfilm archiving -- but was also used to make some of the first computer movies, in the early 1960's.
Another look at interesting early-computer technology, here's a history of Nixie indicators and decimal counting tubes. Now long forgotten, these were physical solutions to problems that are now solved in software.
Speaking of miniature, desk-sized tube computers from the 1950's (eh?) here's a quick (highly) technical overview of the Royal McBee LGP-30, a serial arithmetic, automatic, digital, magnetic drum computer. Mel write software for this thing; 'optimum coding' for drum computers is not for the faint at heart.
"Input and output", or I/O, is what it was called in 1959. In 1999, it's called "user interface". Hardly anything else is better except for side-effects of Moore's Law. let me rant at you, then tell you about an Army system that did "I/O" in 1959.
John von Neumann's First draft of a report on EDVAC was puzzlingly absent from the net in 2001. You can read it here after wading through my editorializing.
I'm working on ground-up design of a vacuum tube computer, a sweetly revisionist (but historically accurate enough) 1952 serial machine. I've completed much of the design documentation, including software architecture, preliminary hardware blocks and some schematics, physical layout, and it includes a simulator and cross-assembler written in Perl. The target is a fully-functional machine capable of outputting text in real time (60 wpm), about 80 (tube) envelopes, 2000 watts, desk sized (portable). After prototyping a few logic and memory components I will be looking for a grant to build a few of them; you can only rarely see such a machine in a museum, and to my knowledge there are no operating machines of this class left; the user paradigm is so amazingly alien to today's computing experience it will really be a time machine. The Story Teller (below) will be it's first set of peripherals (that word itself a quaint anachronism).
My Story Teller is an open-ended system using wonderfully obsolete media -- perforated paper tape. It, well, tells stories, via print, phoneme-speech, and occasionally lit-up glowing phosphors and ink-on-paper. It requires a certain sort of patience to experience. If you are in a hurry you can simply read about it here.
Speaking of paper tape -- here is a brief description of my favorite medium.
Here is my comprehensive history of character codes. It presents a history of the ASCII code, and its immediate predecessors; FIELDATA, ITA2, Murray's Code, Baudot's Code, Morse's Code. It is fully annotated with sources, and it covers the history of control-codes, their meanings and origins. There is probably nothing else like it anywhere. I take up where Mackenzie's Coded character sets: history and development leaves off. Ever wonder what ASCII codes SI and SO were for? Why Baudot code seems so scrambled? Now you can know the answers. Impress, or anaesthetize, your friends.
Confused by bit rate, bits-per-second, baud or is that baud rate, mark and space, start and stop bits? It's actually not very complicated; read it here in Bits, Bauds, & Modulation rates, in the context of mechanical teleprinters, but it's the same for 115200 baud PC async ports you plug your Palm into.
Machine words of an olden kind: I volunteered to transfer some old amateur radio 5-level radioteletype paper tapes, encoded in U.S. ITA2, to disk, as part of an ASCII/teletype art archival project. Here's the story, plus programs I wrote to to the conversion. Make of it what you will.
Here's some books to read, if you're into this sort of thing:
  • ESPECIALLY if you are an artist, and have any care at all about the sciences, you MUST find time to read this book. It's only 200 pages, you lazy S.O.B. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. It's about the process of discovery/invention, though it claims to be about historiography (eh, what does he know). If you don't read this you are making a big mistake. It's on my short list of the most important books I've ever read.
  • Here's my review on Andrew Hodges' book Alan Turing: The enigma, one of the most important books I've ever read. It's not a light read.
  • The Universal Computer,subtitled 'The Road from Leibniz to Turing' by Martin Davis. The best of the bunch (of popular computing history texts of the last decade or so); in addition to giving a good overview of the Big Chunks of early computing (not uncommon) he describes the ideas and motivations; and by avoiding the usual recount of Famous Personages Fantastic Accomplishments (not that there is any lack of those) tips a few sacred cows along the way;
  • decent but lesser books like Paul Ceruzzi's A History of Modern Computing while a good read, covering all the basics also propagates unquestioningly the self-aggrandizement of
  • H.H. Goldstine, who in his very famous The Computer from Pascal to VonNeumann downplays anyone not aligned with him and takes credit for the worlds first operating computer (when in fact the first two operating computers were British, not American, relegating the entire British history to a paragraph or two in an appendix! (His wife, Adele Goldstine was a mathemetician, designed most of the programming that went into the ENIAC calculator, and is likely the source of this book's main virtue: s/he names many of the women who made up the first decades worth of computer programmers
  • (Only in the 1950's did computer programming become "men's work", typified by this little ditty about Mel the programmer).
  • A History of Computing in the 20th Century is a compilation of papers by the predecessors to, and the first generation of, people who brought automatic computing machinery to physical reality. It's highly technical, spotty in places, and utterly invaluable first-person accounts. It's also out of print, alas. MIT Press, Metropolis, Howlett, Rota.
  • The Origins of Digital Computers by Brian Randall, who, by the way, is largely responsible for getting the British gov't to declassify a lot of Bletchley Park work and much of Turing's. He's easily done more than anyone else to prevent the loss of computing history. A collection of early papers and histories, highly technical, in their original contexts.
Here's my review on Andrew Hodges' book Alan Turing: The enigma, one of the most important books I've ever read.
About 40 years late, my review of the Cubic Corp. V-45 electronic digital voltmeter.
Look and listen to some images and sounds from some fine instrumentation from my kilopounds of old stuff.