Evangelizing Mainframe
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Atomic Weapons and the Dawn of the Computer Age

What if I told you we probably wouldn’t have computers if the Manhattan Project hadn’t created atomic bombs? According to a fascinating and detailed book by George Dyson, “Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe,” that’s in many ways the case. And most of what happened through the 1940s and ’50s hinged on John von Neumann and the people he was associated with.

Originally from Hungary, von Neumann and, it seems, many of the pre-eminent minds involved in the development of computing were Europeans escaping from the Nazis. Von Neumann published more than 150 papers. Interestingly, another Central European figure was responsible for collecting and publishing them together after von Neumann’s death—that was the notorious Robert Maxwell. Anyway, at the start of the war, von Neumann was a bit of an expert on explosions and how to model them. The math involved is complicated and so machines able to quickly calculate the answers were needed—hence the development of computers.

Perhaps the most important location in the history of computing is the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) near Princeton. As well as von Neumann, other famous people working at the IAS included Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Noam Chomsky—many of whom worked on creating the very early computers. They had to come up with a design that worked and used readily available components, but the task proved harder than you might expect. The electricity supply could be anything but uniform, and components could fail midway through running a program. And they thought using paper tape was a great leap forward from physical plug boards!

And if you had a machine that could calculate explosion wave fronts, you could also use it to model the weather (meteorology), biological evolution and stellar evolution. And that’s what people tried to do on these very early machines.

Simple (in our terms) computers were also being built in several different places, but they were all based on the ideas of Turing (the Turing machine) and von Neumann architecture. The MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer or Mathematical Analyzer, Numerator, Integrator, and Computer) was at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (where the first atomic bombs were tested. The EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) was built for the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. And the JOHNNIAC was built by Rand. It eventually morphed into the JOSS (Johnniac Open Shop System), one of the earliest time-sharing, multi-user, computing environments.

Rand became Remington Rand and was acquired by Sperry in 1955. It brought us Univac computers. In 1986, it merged with Burroughs to form Unysis.

In England, work on computers was a response by the Bletchley Park code-breakers, who were trying to understand German coded messages. Post office engineer Tommy Flowers built the Colossus machine using more than 1,800 radio valves. In the end, 10 of these machines were built. After World War II, most top-end UK-based computing was at Manchester—the Baby and the Atlas projects. Much of the work carried out during the war was kept secret for many years afterwards, and many UK pioneers received little or no recognition in their lifetimes.

But in the United States, it seems that many of the people who had successfully developed the early working computer at the IAS went on to work for IBM. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s a really interesting book that clearly describing the hurdles people had to overcome to build those early computers and the creation of some the ideas that we take for granted today. But it’s interesting to wonder just how advanced computers would be today without the needs of World War II.

Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd., an IT consultancy. For many years, he was the editorial director for Xephon’s Update publications and is now contributing editor to the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook. Eddolls has written three specialist IT books, and has had numerous technical articles published. He currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups.

Posted: 6/19/2012 4:06:46 AM by Trevor Eddolls

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