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Computing With Bifocals
by Nancy Carroll Gravley

A column for people who remember what
the world was like before there was color.....




A Guide To Computer Pioneers
October 27th, 1999

My very first encounter with computers occurred in 1965-66. I was working as a secretary in a research organization associated with a hospital. The computers were huge metal boxes, located in the basement of the building because of their size and weight. There were people called programmers who went around with big stacks of cards in their hands. These people were unlike any people I had ever met before. They were rumpled and sometimes forgot to bathe. Their hair was long and they had big egos, but no sense of humor. They kept talking about new languages and nothing ever seemed to work. They were trying to create a program that would determine at what time of day terminally ill patients requested pain medication. They worked on it for months without success. I remember thinking all through this that all they needed to do was go check the nursing notes. When I left that job to give birth to my son, I forgot all about the strange people I had been working for and what they were doing. I expect I was fairly typical of that time. Fortunately for all of us, those people kept on with their tedious tasks. There have been many people who have worked away tirelessly, creating step by step, the computers and computer systems that we now take for granted. Some of them we have heard about (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates), but many others have worked in relative obscurity. I thought it would be interesting to learn a bit about some of those pioneers.

Charles Babbage

Charles Babbage was born in December, 1791 in Devonshire, England. He died in 1871. Babbage is known as the "Father of Computing" for his contributions to the basic design of the computer through his Analytical machine. Like most of the pioneers he was an extremely intelligent and learned man having graduated from Cambridge with an MA degree in 1820. He invented a number of things including the cowcatcher, standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, and Greenwich time signals. He was also a very eccentric man and one reason his Analytical machine was never fully developed was his inability to get along with others. He lived in an era when strongly divergent philosophies were prevalent, ranging from the published works of Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy who stated that faith in machinery "is our besetting danger," to a society obsessed with materialism. He died unappreciated. You can read more about Charles Babbage at http://www.looksmart.com/ under the general category of Computer Pioneers.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper was a remarkable woman who achieved her goals in spite of the fact that she was a woman working in fields where women were generally not respected or even found. She was born Grace Murray in December of 1906 to educated parents who were progressive in their views of education for females. Hopper graduated from Vassar College in 1928. While there, she distinguished herself in the disciplines of mathematics and physics, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors and a Vassar College Fellowship that enabled her to earn an MA and a PhD (1934) from Yale University. When World War II broke out Hopper enlisted in the Navy despite the ban on female cadets. The government wanted her to stay in this country to make better use of her mathematical skills, but she joined the Midshipman's School for Women where she graduated first in her class. She was sent to the Bureau of Ordanance Computation Project at Harvard University to work with computers. There she was introduced to Mark I, a "computer engine". Her first assignment was to "have the coefficients for the interpolation of the arc tangents by next Thursday." Through this work Hopper was one of the first three people in the world to program a large-scale automatically sequenced digital computer. It was during this time that the term "bug" was popularized as an explanation for computer problems. The giant computer stopped working one day and Hopper and her team discovered the cause to be a moth which had flown into a relay from an open window; become pulverized by the relay and caused the system to fail. Part of Hopper's contributions to the computer development was her development of a programming language that translated mathematical code into machine language. The universal computer language of COBOL was developed based on Hopper's earlier works. Grace Hopper died in January 1992. You can read more about Grace Hopper at http://www.looksmart.com/ under the general category of Computer Pioneers.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing is known as the founder of computer science. He was also a mathematician, philosopher, codebreaker and strange visionary whose life was greatly complicated by his homosexuality. He was born in June 1912 in Paddington, London, England. He achieved his education at Cambridge University and Princeton University where he earned a Ph.D in 1938 with studies in logic, algebra, and number theory. During World War II he was active as a code breaker and is credited with saving the battle of the Atlantic. In 1946, while working for the National Physical Laboratory in London, he submitted the first computer design. In 1949 he worked on programming and the world's first serious use of computers. From his analysis of what could be achieved by a person performing a methodical process, he conceived the idea of something being done mechanically, which he expressed in terms of a theoretical machine able to perform certain precisely defined elementary operations on symbols on paper tape. He presented convincing arguments that the scope of such a machine was sufficient to encompass everything that would count as a "definite method." His work was cut short in 1952 when he was arrested and tried as a homosexual. This resulted in the loss of his security clearance. He died in 1954 in Wilmslow, Cheshire, England of cyanide poisoning. His death was ruled a suicide. You can read more about Alan Turing at http://www.turing.org.uk/turing/.

Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee is the creater of the World Wide Web. He was born in 1956. He grew up in a family that valued mathematics and education. In his own words Bernes-Lee described his vision of a world wide web to be "...a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished." It's success was "dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize." Berners-Lee defined the web as " a global hypertext space to be created in which any network-accessible information could be referred to by a single 'Universal Document Identifier.'" Berners-Lee graduated from Queen's College at Oxford University, England in 1976. While working for the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland in 1980 he wrote, for his own private use, his first program for storing information including using random associations. The program, named Enquire, was never published, but this program formed the conceptual basis for future development of the World Wide Web. He first proposed a global hypertext project in 1989. It first appeared on the Internet at large in the summer of 1991. He created the initial specification of URLs, HTTP and HTML. Berners-Lee works at the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also Director of the World Wide Web Consortium which coordinates Web standards worldwide. You can read more about Tim Berners-Lee at http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/.

There are many more pioneers in computing and in next week's column I will look at some of the more recent ones.

If you have any tips, suggestions, or other comments about this, or any other Mac topics, send them to me so that I can share them with other readers.


Copies of Nancy's book Tips, Hints, and Solutions for Seasoned Beginners Using Apple Macintosh Computers With OS X are available in PDF download versions  for US$9.57 and in print version for $18.15 plus $4.00 shipping.   To view sample pages and get ordering information visit the September 14, 2004 column.


Post your comments below.
Check out Nancy's complete index of all her columns for the most complete list of tips anywhere. The list is categorized and is a great reference when you are looking for help!

A Capacious Catalog Of Computer Tips

Talking to a generation that remembers what the world was like before there was color, covers issues for people who don't care how their computer works, but rather what their computer and the internet can do for them.

Nancy has a Master's degree in Human Services Administration and prior to her retirement she worked for almost 30 years in field of mental health and mental retardation. She has been a Mac user for 11 years, and has recently developed an avocation of teaching basic computer skills in both group and one-to-one settings.


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