Category Archives: Computing History

The Victorians wired the world

Before the telephone, there was the telegraph. For the first time in history, messages could travel faster than a galloping horse and eventually they would cross continents and oceans. The information age began with the telegraph.

Here’s an excellent 1998 book with a similar theme: The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers

Dangerous Knowledge

I watched Dangerous Knowledge, a 90-minute BBC video documentary from 2007 which explores the imaginations of four great thinkers. (It’s in two parts. Watch Part Two) These guys opened doors to areas of mathematics that enable today’s technology. And then . . . then, these intellectual giants’ lives spun out of control, toward madness and suicide.

The four:

  1. Georg Cantor (1845 – 1918), mathematician. Inventor of set theory, he created the Continuum Hypothesis, which explored the possible sizes of infinite sets. He suffered from manic depression and spent long periods in sanitoria.
  2. Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906), physicist. Made sense of disorder. Probability theory pioneer.
  3. Kurt Gödel (1906 – 1978), shook mathematics, philosophy, and logic, with his incompleteness theorem. Close friend of Albert Einstein while at Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies.
  4. Alan Turing (1912 – 1954), “the father of modern computing”

Listen In this interview with physicist Janna Levin (51 minutes), she explains the importance of the insights of mathematicians Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing.

Watch Dangerous Knowledge video:

A 2000 year old computer

Nova: The 2000 Year-Old ComputerDecoding the Antikythera Mechanism (first aired on American PBS television network in 2013)

“It re-writes the history of technology.”


The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project

Jo Marchant explains: In search of lost time

New movie about Alan Turing opens next month

image(Originally published October, 2014) The new British film The Imitation Game illustrates the remarkable life of mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing. It will open in theaters on November 21.

This 30-minute video interview with the film’s director Morten Tyldum, actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, and screenwriter Graham Moore, is worth watching. I can’t wait to see the movie. I’m happy that the screenplay is based on Andrew Hodges’ definitive biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. (Hodges is a mathematician, so if you’d like, he can walk you through Turing’s reasoning based on number theory that led to the routine decryption of messages that were encrypted by the German Navy’s Enigma machines.) Hodges’ biography is a wonderful book that I use as a reference.

Screenwriter Moore describes Mr. Turing as “the outsider’s outsider”. Director Tyldum calls The Imitation Game “a story about outsiders, those who are different.” “The mission of the movie is to celebrate uniqueness — individuality.”

Watch the movie trailer.

Update, 28 Dec 2014 Mathematician Simon Singh saw the movie and quipped in a Science Friday interview that it’s “filled with factual errors, full of flaws, and in that respect it’s a terrible, terrible film” but in other ways it’s a “brilliant, great film”. According to Singh, the movie errs in dozens of details. Notable errors:

  • At Bletchley Park during WW2, Turing is shown building a general purpose computer dubbed “Christopher”, which supposedly was used to decipher scrambled German messages that had been encrypted with the Enigma machine. This is wrong. Turing did create the algorithms for, design, and participate in the construction of multiple dedicated electromechanical single-purpose calculators that were used to decipher Enigma-encrypted messages. These machines were called bombes.
  • In 1952, through detective work, the Manchester police discovered that Turing was a homosexual. In fact, Alan’s flat was burgled by, he suspected, a homosexual paramour. Outraged, he reported it to police, and mentioned that, yes, he had had a few trysts with the suspect. The police charged him with “lewd and indecent acts” (the same crime that had put Oscar Wilde behind bars a few decades earlier).

I view these errors as serious flaws, but I suppose that Hollywood feels a need to juice up the facts.

November 2015: I’m not going to watch this movie. Reviews by knowledgeable people who’ve seen it decry its many inaccuracies. Just one of many negative reviews on IMDB:

Another Weinstein production that is obvious and sad. Pushing the main Hollywood agenda of homosexuality. Sad and practically comical A very demeaning exploitation of the real heroes and suffering in WWII and woe is the lone gay guy losing the battle to the evil empire of the moral world. Save your money. The acting was made trite by the twisted story and the depth was a deep as a sippy cup. Really disappointing but of course will get tons of attention due to the publicity budget from this group. This once again confirms that you can no longer see a big name production without expecting the story to be trivialized and contain the jaded view of the liberal left who is in a ship going down.


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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Happy Ada Lovelace day

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

Who’s Ada Lovelace? She was the brilliant daughter of English poet Lord Byron. In the 1840s she translated an Italian report on Charles Babbage’s (steam driven!) Analytical Engine. Her accompanying notes included an algorithm that’s regarded as the first computer program. She mused that eventually machines could compose music and create visual art.

I’ve written several articles about this enigmatic female mathematician.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Why not a movie about Ada?

Now that not just one, but two movies (Breaking The Code and The Imitation Game) have been produced about Alan Turing, it’s time we had a movie about Ada Lovelace. She seems to have possessed an unusual combination of precise reasoning and imagination, strong will, and feminine charm. Plus, she was in the middle of a tug o war between her feuding parents, poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella.

Ada LovelaceWhy is Ada important? She’s acknowledged to be the first computer programmer (c 1840!). Like Mozart and Turing, her life was tragically cut short at a young age. I propose this biopic today because it’s Ada Lovelace Day!

imageBBC Great Lives 28-minute audio portrait of Ada Lovelace.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

October 14 is Ada Lovelace day

Ada LovelaceThis Tuesday, the website celebrates the short but creative life of the 19th century woman who’s often called “the first computer programmer”. Huh? Computers in the 1800s? Well, around 1840, Englishman Charles Babbage designed and partially built steam-driven(!) complex mechanisms that could perform calculations.

Babbage’s unfinished piece de la resistance was the Analytical Engine, which used patterns of holes in small wooden cards to store data and machine instructions.


It was a programmable machine. Ada wrote a program for it that calculated Fibonacci numbers. She also mused about using such machines to create music and art.

The findingada website explains Ada Lovelace day:

The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM.

I’ve written articles about Ada Lovelace before. I’ve always admired her rare blend of intellectual discipline and imagination.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Email systems I’ve known and loved (or at least tolerated)

My first email experiences were using CP/M based communication programs (written in 8080 assembler) such as MODEM7 and Mex to reach dial-up BBSs with hosted email systems, around 1980. Many BBSs allowed their users to exchange messages with other users of that BBS. They stored all messages on the BBS host; users viewed and edited messages while their own computers functioned as terminals. These systems didn’t reach beyond the BBS — users could email only other members of the same BBS.

My modem remained off-hook during message reading and editing, so phone bills shot through the roof if the BBS wasn’t within my local calling area. Another drawback was that each BBS program’s email program presented its own unique user interface.

MCI Mail

mci-mailWhen I signed up with MCI Mail in 1983, my email scope grew.  It presented a text-based interface to its terminal-based users.  MCI Mail included a gateway to the U.S. Postal Service, and MCI added more gateways later. I liked MCI Mail, except for its pricing. (Was it really a dollar per message? I forget.)  Its addresses were ten-digits (I think). I’d dial into their modem pool at 300 bps or reach them via Tymnet while my Northstar Horizon and its Hazeltine 1500 terminal worked as a dumb terminal.


Fidonet system architecture
FidoNet system architecture

In 1984, Tom Jennings and John Madill lashed up a dial-up network for BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems), called FidoNet. Each BBS would gather up a day’s outgoing messages, compress them, and upload them via dial-up modem to its upstream BBS. That BBS would decompress the incoming messages, distribute those messages that were destined for its users, add its outgoing messages to those it just received, compress all outgoing messages, and dial its upstream BBS so that it could upload its bundle of outgoing messages. This was all via automated dial-up connections, which were mostly attempted overnight. It was funky, but it worked.

Thanks to FidoNet, users of any FidoNet-connected BBS could exchange email with users of all other FidoNet-connected BBSs.  Eventually someone created a gateway to the Internet.

One reason for FidoNet mail’s success is that it separated the message transport function from the user agent function.  Users of CBBS systems could easily exchange messages with users of Searchlight BBS systems, across the globe. All FidoNet user agents allowed reading and replying to email while offline.

I used a FidoNet-based email frontend and backend called D’Bridge, which was written in Borland’s Turbo Pascal by Chris Irwin.  It was very slick, but I never saw it progress beyond the “work in progress” stage. D’Bridge allowed my PC to become a FidoNet node or point, so I could correspond with FidoNet BBS email users around the world for the cost of a local phone call.  Email reading and replying was done off-line, so phone costs remained low. (I met Chris — a bungee jumper and skydiver — once in Miami.  He told me that he’d bicycled to the South Miami post office to mail disks of his program and on his way home, his bike was stolen out from under him — as he was riding it!  Miami was frantic in the 1980s.)

AT&T Mail

Eventually AT&T introduced its AT&T Mail service. It was a warmed-over Unix-based mail system that was rushed to market when AT&T’s long-delayed packet-switched network failed to appear. It offered a uucp gateway and services similar to MCI Mail, but I preferred MCI Mail’s much friendlier user interface.

Western Union EasyLink

Western Union introduced its EasyLink service as a competitor to MCI Mail. It had an unfriendly user interface and a directory that was difficult to search, but offered gateways to most other public email systems. Around 1991, AT&T relabeled EasyLink as AT&T EasyLink. It remained clunky and expensive.

A major problem with most public email services was that users were billed by the minute while their modem remained connected.


About 1986, I installed Action Technologies’ MHS (Message Handling Service), a Novell Netware server based mail handling system with an open application programming interface.  Action Technologies’ own Coordinator email client was intriguing, but too structured for most users.  In 1988 we settled on Davinci eMAIL, a client-based system which used MHS for message transport between mail hosts.  It stored a user’s messages in either a private local database or a shared database on a server.  DaVinci eMAIL served us well for many years, first in text versions and later in Windows versions.

itlgA number of commercial and shareware gateways for MHS appeared. We eventually had MHS gateways to MCI Mail, AT&T Mail, fax, uucp, and SMTP.  For some reason, Novell was slow to update MHS, which left an opening.  A small Maryland based company named Infinite Technologies produced an MHS compatible “post office” with a feature superset.  It was called Connect2.  We replaced all MHS hosts with Connect2.

  • Sidenote: Infinite Technologies’ founders were Brett Warthen (a prolific coder) and John Madill.  John was one of the founders of FidoNet. Small World.  At least then it was.

MHS (and Connect2) connected organizations by transporting messages between disparate systems primarily using dial-up connections, but as the 1990s drew to a close, that role was acquired by products that employed SMTP (Simple Message Transport Protocol) on the public Internet.

Lotus Notes

About 1997, my employer’s new owner mandated deployment of Lotus Notes.  It was essentially a shared database with a quirky email-like user interface.  Most users preferred the intuitive DaVinci eMAIL user interface.

Microsoft Exchange

In 1996 Microsoft introduced its first release of Exchange.  It offered X.400 compatibility but no compatibility with MHS.  I didn’t think that it had a future.  I was wrong.


I use a variety of email systems. On my Android phone, I use the friendly email program that’s bundled with Android 4.2.2.  On PCs, I use Mozilla’s Thunderbird or Microsoft’s old Outlook Express.  I avoid Microsoft Outlook;  I just don’t like its user interface.  Occasionally I use Microsoft Office 365’s Webmail, with its horrible user interface.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Technology and submarine warfare

If necessity is the mother of invention, war is its father. Both automated encryption/decryption and radar technologies blossomed during World War Two. An excellent documentary on YouTube tells the see-saw story of Germany’s WW2 U-boats. The keys to neutralizing them were code breaking and airborne microwave radar.

imageThis 2-hour 34-minute video shows that the German submariners’ fates swung from invincibility to doom, as the Allies deployed various defense technologies.

I was surprised to learn how ineffective the U.S. Navy was, early in the war, at defending our own shores. The U-boats sank 400 merchant ships near our coastline! Apparently we have Admiral King to blame for these staggering losses. He was at the time in charge of defending our eastern shore. Always an Anglophobe, he distrusted the decrypted German Naval messages that were provided to him by the English codebreakers.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the relationship between war and technology, watch this video.

Detailed report of WW2 use of radar to detect U-boats

Alan Turing pardoned for 1952 “crime”

Alan Turing & Enigma machineEnglish mathematician Alan Turing, who in 1952 was convicted of “gross indecency” (read: homosexuality), today received a pardon from Queen Elizabeth. His death in 1954 was ruled a suicide. His work at Bletchley Park had led to the breaking of the German naval Enigma code during WW2. BBC story:

Thanks to Mike Cole for the headzup.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

IBM PC design chief dies

I was surprised to read this headline recently: IBM PC pioneer William C Lowe dies, aged 72. I well remember when IBM introduced its first PC in 1981. It was not especially remarkable, aside from its IBM nametag and the momentum, capital, and resources behind that name.

William C. Lowe
William C. Lowe

Until the IBM PC, the microcomputer industry (if you could call it that) was a disorganized rag-tag collection of under-capitalized dreamers — including a little hippie outfit called Apple Computer. Messrs Lowe and (Don) Estridge in just one year designed and placed in production a personal computer that would light a fire under the microcomputer industry. IBM brought credibility to the market, along with a deluge of peripheral, add-on, and software developers. Lowe, Estridge, and their crew deserve gold stars for quickly producing a product that would revolutionize the microcomputer world, if not the business world.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Ada Lovelace Day is October 15

October 15 is Ada Lovelace day this year. Ada_Lovelace_in_1852Who’s she? She’s been called “the first computer programmer”, which is remarkable because she lived from 1815 to 1852 — long before electronic computers existed. Her “program” calculated Fibonacci numbers for Charles Babbage’s steam-driven(!) mechanical device called “the Analytical Engine”. It was to be programmed by a succession of punch cards (or punch boards, actually).

Babbages Analytical Engine
Part of Analytical Engine’s mill. photo: Science Museum London

ListenLast month, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a 30-minute radio program about Ada Lovelace. She was the daughter of the English poet Lord Byron and his wife Anabel. She seems to have combined her mother’s analytical mind with her father’s wild imagination. While Babbage was obsessed with calculating large tables of numbers (logarithms, trigonometric functions, arithmetic series), Ada imagined that a general purpose computing machine could also create music and graphics — quite a leap!

Unfortunately, Ada died of cancer at age 36. Neither she nor Babbage ever saw the Analytical Engine run.

Today, “Ada” is the name of a modern computer language. celebrates her day and women in science, technology, engineering and math, on October 15.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Apollo guidance computer, 1969

I watched a 1969 film on YouTube about the inner workings of the Apollo Guidance Computer that helped put a man on the moon. The navigation details are fascinating. I had no idea that the astronauts used a sextant to shoot bearings to stars!

Integrated circuits vintage

7400The film shows logic gates that are packaged in TO cases. (TO cases are small diameter metal cans used to house transistors.) By 1967 these would have been obsolete. In 1967 we were already developing products with readily-available quad NAND gates (using TTL — transistor-transistor logic). These 7400-series parts were packaged in 14-pin plastic DIPs (Dual In-line Packages). The higher spec’d 5400 series were packaged in ceramic DIPs. I’d guess that the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) in the film was designed well before that — maybe 1964 or even earlier.

I’m a little confused. The Wikipedia description of the AGC states that it exclusively used Fairchild resistor-transistor logic (RTL) dual NOR gates in a flat-pack. Hmmmm. That’s not what the film shows.

In any case, both the single logic gate in a can and the dual RTL NOR gates in a flat pack would have been obsolete by 1969. I would have thought that NASA projects would have used the latest technologies, not 5 year old technologies. I guess that subsystems within large projects such as Apollo acquire momentum, and once they’ve been proven, the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” motto applies.

It’s an interesting film, regardless.

Tales of 1940s-50s computing

In 1953, the world contained 5 kilobytes of electronic memory.

John von Neumann and the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer in front of the EDVAC
John von Neumann and the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer in front of the EDVAC
George Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson and brother of I.T. pundit Esther Dyson, tells the story of electronic computers’ early days. I loved listening to his 52-minute aural presentation. He describes the early post-war activities of computer pioneers John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, and Paul Erdős. George’s father rubbed elbows with these guys at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, so George has personal childhood memories of some of these giants.

He points out that Alan Turing’s hypothetical Turing Machine (which stored instructions and data sequentially on a tape) of 1936 gave us a one-dimensional computing model. With 1945’s EDVAC design, John von Neumann gave us a two-dimensional model (which stored instructions and data in a matrix). Today’s computers are just very fast iterations of 1945’s von Neumann model.

John von NeumannVon Neumann was at the center of not just computing, but also development of the hydrogen bomb, study of climate change, and exploration of DNA.

Back in 1953, von Neumann and crew at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies explored nuclear fission, shock waves, weather prediction, biological evolution, and stellar evolution — in just 5 kilobytes of memory!

Von Neumann died in 1957. Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies pulled the plug on his computer in 1958.

ListenGeorge Dyson is an outdoorsman and master kayak builder. (For 3 years he lived 90 feet up in a tree house.) He mixes a love of the outdoors with knowledge of science and technology. He discusses his life and interests in this 67-minute audio interview. Here’s a 12-minute interview.