Machinery & Systems
Singular experiences often play a bigger role than is commonly known or remembered.
My own involvement with computers and programming and data communications has "roots" that go back
a very long way. A few years back I attended a personal appearance and brief lecture
by David Alan Grier in Framingham (Mass.) on the subject of his book, "When Computers Were
Human." The adults I grew up with were an intimate part of that history.
My grandfather, Ralph Root, was a mathematician and a college professor – Chairman of the Mathematics and Mechanics Department at the U. S. Naval Academy Postgraduate School. One of his colleagues and friends was Dr. Clinton Bramble, another mathematician of the early 20th century, when complex computation relied on extensive tables of numerical coefficients, constants, formulas and algorithms. As you may know, the Navy instigated and financed the wartime development of the first electronic computer, the Harvard Mark I, officially the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC).
While it was an effective computing engine, it was controlled ("programmed") by a paper tape that specified each step of the calculation. These first machines were large; one report mentioned that the Mark I cabinets stretched 85 feet from end to end.
Mark II - Partial view w/Console
|The subsequent development of the
was also financed by the U.S. Navy, driven again by the need for analytic calculations
previously based on coefficient tables. The Mark II was the first real computer,
operating on a series of operations stored in electronic memory – a "stored
I heard first-hand some stories of the Mark II project from Dr. Bramble, in the late 1950's at his summer house in central New Hampshire. He told me that the Navy people realized one computer would never be enough, so his group added enough money to the project for "spare parts" to finance development of a second machine.
Much of the detail background was a later discovery to me. Dr. Carlos Borges, the incumbent head of the Mathematics Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, contacted me over the Internet while he was researching the early history of his department. Through him I learned much of my grandfather's career and the post-war career of Dr. Bramble.
Some years later, I was pleased to find additional confirmation of the early events in the 1973 Computer Oral History interview with Howard Aiken, by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.