The architecture of the Internet

Normally I use the course Twitter account to post links to contemporary developments relevant to (but not required reading about) course material.  This one I want to elevate to the front page of the course site.

We spent both lectures this week talking about the history and architecture of the Internet, with a particular focus on what Langdon Winner called “the politics of the artifact.”

Today Vint Cerf, a key author of the TCP/IP protocol, is now suggesting that the NSA influenced his decision not to include stronger encryption in the original standard.

Primary Source Assignment

Spring break is over and we are starting our sprint to the end of the semester!   Over the next few weeks we will be working on our primary source assignment, which will provide a first-hand perspective on the history of the personal computer revolution.

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We will be talking about the projects in class, but here is an description of the project, an outline of what is expected of you, and a list of the curated document collections.

The primary source assignment is due in class on April 10.

Ceci n’est pas un ordinateur


Today in class we talked about personal computer-like devices that are not often considered as part of the history of the personal computer: computer utility terminals, the French Minitel network, video game consoles.   The point was to break out of the conventional mythologies of the personal computer — driven by histories of successful firms such as Microsoft and Apple  — and to ask new and more nuanced questions.

One of the aspect of the history of computing that is most difficult to convey in a lecture (or reading) has to done with the experience of using a computer.  This is one of the many reasons why the history of software, which as I have argued is by far the most interesting aspect of the history of computing, has proven so challenging for historians, archivists, and museum curators to get their minds around.

One way of getting at the user experience is to use a software emulator or simulator. While none of these is capable of capturing the full experience of operating a computer, they provide at least a reasonably close approximation.

A good place to start is with Spacewar! online, which runs a PDP-1 emulator via an in-browser Java application.

The Internet Archive has recently made available a large historical software collection, which includes many of the classic games we talked about in class today, including Pitfall, Pacman, and ET the Extra-Terrestrial (Worst. Game. Ever…). The Internet Archive collection also include non-gaming software such as Visicalc, which is an important early spreadsheet application that we will talk about next week.

There are other emulators/simulators you play with if you are interested, including several ENIAC and EDSAC simulators. The Computer History Simulation Project provides a multi-system simulator that covers such historically-significant (and highly relevant to this class) computers such as the IBM 1401, PDP-9, and the MITS Altair 8800. There is also a nice list at Atari Age of similar projects that covers the Apple II, TRS-80, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and other early personal computers.

The Game of Life

Today in our lecture on Simulations, Simulacra, and the Matrix we talked about the cellular automata developed by the mathematician John Conway.   You can play the Game of Life online, or download the cross-platform application Golly.  There are also versions available for Android and iOS. For more resources on Conway’s Game of Life, visit the ConwayLife wiki. For a more industrial-strength artificial life simulator, try the Avida-ED project at the University of Michigan.

Click the embedded video for the Khan Academy  Tour through Ancient Rome that we previewed in class.  For more information about Professor Frischer, the Digital Hadrian Villa project, or his I400/590 course on Virtual Heritage, see his website.

Software History

Just a reminder that the readings for this week are from the Computer book: you are responsible for chapters 6 (“The Maturing of the Mainframe”) and 8 (“Software”).   There is no reading response for this week.  In addition to doing the readings, you should start preparing for the mid-term exam.

In our lecture of the significance of software, we talked about software as a heterogeneous technology, by which we meant that software is inextricably linked to a larger socio-technical system that includes machines (computers and their associated peripherals), people (users, designers, and developers), and processes (the corporate payroll system, for example).

One indication of the socio-technical nature of software is its durability: despite the fact that software is, in theory, almost infinitely flexible, in practice software systems are difficult to modify.  An excellent example of this is the challenge of software maintenance.  You can find a brief discussion of what the software maintenance tells us about the heterogenous nature of software on my blog about the history of computer programming.  This is not required reading, but you may find it useful.

The major thrust of this past week’s lectures has been that computerization requires more than just computers:  the rapid pace of development in computer technology in the 1960s (in terms of price, performance, and reliability) revealed the difficulties inherent in integrating computers into organizations.   The software crisis of the late 1960s is a reflection of a series of challenges associated with software development.

The big take-home point to remember:

There is no Moore’s Law for software.

On Tuesday we will talk about and prepare for the mid-term.  On Thursday, you will take the exam.

Images of Early Computing

In our lecture today on IBM and the Seven Dwarves, we talked about and/or watched portions of several movies.   The first, of course, was the 1957 classic Desk Set with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.  If you have not seen it, rent it on iTunes, Amazon, Youtube, or find some other way to watch it pronto!  You cab also read about the movie and its relationship to the history of computing in this excerpt from my The Computer Boys Take Over book.

We also several clips from Remington Rand Univac:

The second of these is particularly interesting, as it is both humorous, and self-reflective about the history of data processing.

Finally, we caught a glimpse of In Your Defense, a Cold War-era educational film about the SAGE Air Defense Network.

Have fun!



Build your own computer!

This week was all about the electronic digital computer (finally!). On Tuesday, we covered the wartime origins of electronic computing, from cybernetics to Turing to the ENIAC. On Thursday we will have the first and only technical lecture of the semester. Starting with only a light bulb and battery, we will work our way up to building the most powerful computer in the entire Universe of Space and Time. No joke. And not only we will be doing so in roughly 45 minutes, but you will understand how a computer (and, in fact, every computer) works by the time we are through.

Here is the kicker.

I will not be physically present on Thursday. The lecture will be virtual. You can listen to it at your leisure, as long as you do so by the end of the week. There is a handout that corresponds to the lecture, which you can find here.  Print out a couple of copies and work along with the video.  Doing so will greatly enhance your understanding.

The video is available on Youtube, which seemed like the most convenient method of distribution.

Take your time, keep a list of any questions that come up as you watch the video, and see you all next week!