Computer books your great grandfather might have read

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

I have been reading two very different computer books written for a general readership: Giant Brains or Machines that Think, published in 1949 (with a retrospective chapter added in 1961) and LET ERMA DO IT, published in 1956.

‘Giant Brains’ by Edmund Berkeley, was very popular in its day.

Berkeley marvels at a computer performing 5,000 additions per second; performing all the calculations in a week that previously required 500 human computers (i.e., people using mechanical adding machines) working 40 hours per week. His mind staggers at the “calculating circuits being developed” that can perform 100,00 additions a second; “A mechanical brain that can do 10,000 additions a second can very easily finish almost all its work at once.”

The chapter discussing the future, “Machines that think, and what they might do for men”, sees Berkeley struggling for non-mathematical applications; a common problem with all new inventions. Automatic translator and automatic stenographer (typist who transcribe dictation) are listed. There is also a chapter on social control, which is just as applicable today.

This was the first widely read book to promote Shannon‘s idea of using the algebra invented by George Boole to analyze switching circuits symbolically (THE 1940 Masters thesis).

The ‘ERMA’ book paints a very rosy picture of the future with computer automation removing the drudgery that so many jobs require; it is so upbeat. A year later the USSR launched Sputnik and things suddenly looked a lot less rosy.

The first compiler was implemented in itself

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

I have been reading about the world’s first actual compiler (i.e., not a paper exercise), described in Corrado Böhm’s PhD thesis (French version from 1954, an English translation by Peter Sestoft). The thesis, submitted in 1951 to the Federal Technical University in Zurich, takes some untangling; when you are inventing a new field, ideas tend to be expressed using existing concepts and terminology, e.g., computer peripherals are called organs and registers are denoted by the symbol pi.

Böhm had work with Konrad Zuse and must have known about his language, Plankalkül. The language also has a APL feel to it (but without the vector operations).

Böhm’s language does not have a name, his thesis is really about translating mathematical expressions to machine code; the expressions are organised by what we today call basic blocks (Böhm calls them groups). The compiler for the unnamed language (along with a loader) is written in itself; a Java implementation is being worked on.

Böhm’s work is discussed in Donald Knuth’s early development of programming languages, but there is nothing like reading the actual work (if only in translation) to get a feel for it.

Update (3 days later): Correspondence with Donald Knuth.

Update (3 days later): A January 1949 memo from Haskell Curry (he of Curry fame and more recently of Haskell association) also uses the term organ. Might we claim, based on two observations on different continents, that it was in general use?