19.184 early contacts with computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 30 Jul 2005 06:39:19 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 184.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 30 Jul 2005 06:36:56 +0100
         From: "Joseph Raben" <joeraben_at_cox.net>
         Subject: Re: 19.182 dry and wet photography

Since we are reminiscing about early contacts with the technology we
now depend on, may I post a short memory of my first contact with a
computer, the ENIAC in 1946. While in the Army Special Training
Program at the University of Pennsylvania, learning spoken Japanese
in preparation for overseas assignment in the Occupation, I responded
to a call for volunteers to pose for recruiting photos to be
published in national magazines. Another trainee and I reported to
the Moore School, where we were posed in front of the monster that
filled a large room.

I was temporarily promoted to sergeant for the shoot, and pretended
to be showing my friend how the machine worked. We were told that an
inset would show a rocket being launched, to demonstrate how the
machine was serving the nation. The implication that Army personnel
were involved with the ENIAC seems to have been propaganda.

Predictably, one of the vacuum tubes blew and we had to sit around
while it was replaced. One of the civilian operators took the
opportunity to brag about his machine, which could do arithmetic
calculations as fast as hundreds of humans with pencils. He showed us
the vertical rows of flashlight bulbs that lit up in succession, one
column at a time, to indicate the addition of integers (n=n+1). His
emphasis, properly enough, was on the arithmetic functions. Had he
even hinted (with a prescience few people had at that time) that the
machine could also process language, I might have been less impatient
to get out of there and meet my girlfriend.

When the Army recruiting ads appeared that summer in Life, Look and
Time, two other Army people had replaced my friend and me. So my
moment of glory (phony though it was) was snatched from me. My
efforts to locate the photos, once the significance of that moment
was clear to me, never produced them. But coupled with the time I
spent as a civil engineering aide on the construction of the
plutonium refinement plant at Hanford, Washington, in 1944, this
confrontation with the early computer constitutes an interesting
combined exposure (trivial as they both were) to the two major
technological bombshells of our generation: atomic energy and computers.

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Received on Sat Jul 30 2005 - 01:51:50 EDT

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