Old Ideas, New Technology

Charles Babbage is widely credited coming up with the idea of programmable computers. His idea was sound but the supporting technologies needed to make programmable computers a practical reality were not yet available. Now fast-forward to the mid-20thcentury. In the 1940s and early1950s, the work of von Neumann, Eckert, Mauchly and others resulted in programmable computers using vacuum tubes as the basic building block for making binary decisions (current flow allowed=1, current flow blocked=0). Vacuum tube computers were huge, expensive devices that filled rooms, or even floors, of a building. In addition, they generated massive amounts of heat.

In the 1950’s, the transistor came into widespread use as the basic building block for binary switching. It was orders of magnitude smaller than the vacuum tubes it replaced and consumed a lot less power. Therefore, programmable computer designers could package much more processing power per square inch/cm into an equivalent amount of space as was consumed by the old vacuum tube models. In addition, instead filling up rooms, computers now shared rooms with other computers.

In the mid-1960s, integrated circuits began to appear in products and eventually resulted in the “computer on a chip” that contains millions of transistors, again making orders of magnitude strides in both processing power per square inch/cm and power consumption.

So do we really have new ideas? Or, do advances in technology act as enablers for ideas that may have been floating around for centuries?

Think about this while you are sitting in front of your von Neumann/Eckert/Mauchly/Babbage machine.

2 thoughts on “Old Ideas, New Technology”

  1. Harry,

    I think you forgot to include the Queen of Modern Computing Languages, Grace Hopper! Talk about how we don’t have new ideas — and maybe over the years things don’t really change that much — have you ever wondered why it took a woman to come to the conclusion that we could introduce user friendliness to our programming environment?

    And, what do you think all those bad boy Assembler programmers with a fist full of vacuum tubes thought of this woman? “Did you hear what Hopper said? She thinks we should write in a language close to the one we speak?” slight silence HUGE LAUGHTER! lol… I am certain that is what happened!

    Still the same today…just how many women, Harry, do you know who dink around with the Linux operating systems?

    I think you are right, we are in a gigantic loop!


  2. You’re right…Adm. Hopper certainly belongs on the list, along with John Backus (he invented FORTRAN). He’s the “B” in something called “BNF” Notation.

    Years ago, I worked for an organizatin that provided network engineerng support for a U.S. Government agency. I was part of a team of programmers that developed and maintained software that simulated the operation of voice and data networks. We used FORTRAN for the simulalor’s number crunching. We then took the raw output from the FORTRAN programs and used it as the input to COBOL programs, which produced the printed output reports.

    The reason we used COBOL was that it was much more efficient (and therefore faster) than FORTRAN for file manipulation and formatting of printed output.

    P.S. At the time, there was also a guy named Roy Nutt who worked for the same company as I did. He was a major contributor on the team that developed the original FORTRAN compiler.

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