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Humanist Archives: July 12, 2019, 3:38 p.m. Humanist 33.135 - history of the digital computer?

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 135.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
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        Date: 2019-07-12 14:10:00+00:00
        From: Richard Vahrenkamp 
        Subject: Revision of Digital History?

Does digital history need to be rewritten?

The standard stories about digital computers have some gaps, as they do
not explain that the aircraft industry mainly used electronic analog
computers. The standard stories play out more in the academic milieu of
Philadelphia and Princeton, while the USA had experienced a turning
point in technological history in 1945 with the development of
jet-powered fighters, numerous rocket projects and the electronic analog
computer, with the arms industry experiencing a tremendous upswing.
CalTech graduate engineers Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge became the
leading figures in the West Coast Atlas rocket project, but remained
unknown in digital computer literature. They operated large computing
labs on the West Coast.

I have explored this scenario in my essay:

The Computing Boom in the US Aeronautical Industry, 1945-1965,

In: ICON - The Journal of the International Committee for the History of
Technology, volume 24, 2019, pp. 127–149. An extended version is
available at:


My paper also interprets three texts from the period 1960 - 1989, which
attribute the newly developed missiles to the digital computer without
even acknowledging the role of the analog computer. The texts thus lay
the foundation for the myth of the digital computer.

John von Neumann's position on the analog computer has not been
clarified. In the vicinity of the Institute for Advanced Study in
Princeton, the Office of Naval Research had awarded a major project to
the electronic analog computer in the laboratories of RCA (Typhoon
Project). In addition, John von Neumann was a member of the Teapot
Committee, which steered the development of the ballistic long-range
rocket Atlas, which informed him very well about the use of electronic
analog computers for construction and simulation in the Atlas rocket
project. In his research projects the solution of differential equations
played an important role (in his meteorology projects and in the
projects in Los Alamos), for which the electronic analog computer would
have been an ideal instrument. At the end of the 1940s, this type of
computer was widely used and readily available in the USA. Why John von
Neumann did not use this computer is an open question. There is no doubt
that John von Neumann did not want to develop the digital computer to
calculate very large prime numbers or to support the administration of
banks and insurance companies, but to solve differential equations.

Like the trajectory of rockets, the trajectory of grenades can be
described with differential equations. Why the proving ground in
Aberdeen wanted to develop a digital computer and not fall back on the
available analog computers is still an open question.

With kind regards from Berlin

Richard Vahrenkamp

Prof. Dr. Richard Vahrenkamp
Logistik Consulting Berlin
Phone 0177- 628 3325
Trendelenburgstr. 16
14057 Berlin

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