Electronic Brains, Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age, by Mike Hally, ISBN 0-309-09630-8, Joseph Henry Press, 2005.
Electronic Brains is a personal account from the early days of computing that describes the childhood of a technology that is little more than 50 years old. The book originated as a BBC radio programme, still accessible at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/electronicbrains.shtml. Mike Hally traveled over the globe looking for the first “computors” and the stories from the dawn of a new age. This book contains the results of the investigation, giving a firsthand testimony of hard work, passion, and amazing developments that shaped the second half of the last century.
Chapter 1, “From ABC to ENIAC,” presents the development of what is commonly accepted as the first computer, the ENIAC, a computer that replaced calculating machines and people making the operations in ballistic trajectories analysis by hand. Credit is given to John Atanassof and Clifford Berry, the developers of ABC, possibly the first operational computer in the world.
Development of the UNIVAC, the computer famed by predicting the result of the 1952 U.S. presidential election, is presented in Chapter 2. Designed by Eckert and Mauchly, the developers of ENIAC, UNIVACs were commercial computers used for processing census data and so well marketed that the term “UNIVAC” was used as a synonym for “computer.”
Chapter 3 looks at the development of the Rand 409, maybe the first mass-produced computer. The 409 was a medium-sized computer, with a price tag of US$100,000 that compared favorably against UNIVAC’s $1 million, achieving a sell rate of one per week.
“Computing in Great Britain” is the focus of Chapter 4, where credit is given to Maurice Wilkes and Alan Turing. A worthy detail that gives a glimpse of the technical difficulties overcome is the description of memory based on mercury delay-lines, where binary data was stored using sound pulses on tubes filled with mercury engineered in such way that the delay from transmitter to receiver allowed the electronics to do the calculation before the data in memory was needed at the receiver side.
Perhaps the strangest computer development is set forth in Chapter 5. The Lyons Electronics Office (LEO) was a computer developed by a large catering company to expedite its clerical operations. LEO was possibly the first commercial computer in the world, so successful that the catering company began to produce and sell it to other corporations.
Chapter 6 describes the efforts by USSR scientists to develop computing technology. More than one development was made; it is not clear which was the first soviet computer, and the developments were secret—in some cases very specialized, such as a computer with ternary logic instead of the currently used binary logic (ENIAC used decimal logic).
Chapter 7 focuses on computing developments in Australia, work that did not last because the funds were scarce and sometimes the budget was assigned to other sciences, such as radiophysics. Here we can see that computers were used for purposes totally different than their uses in cold-war countries; for example, they were used to answer crossword puzzles—strange if we consider that the disk had a capacity of 3 KB.
A strange computer, formally known as Hydraulic Economics Computer, is described in Chapter 8. It was not a typical computer—it was a system developed to show the interrelation between macroeconomic variables using colored water, pumps, and valves. Universities, central banks, and Ford bought the computer, and four of them survive in different parts of the world. The emergence of IBM is the subject of Chapter 9, which presents IBM as a late adopter of computing technology that eventually became the leader of the computer age. We learn that the first computer produced by IBM was the IBM 701; after that came the IBM 1401 and then the IBM 360—the system that consolidated IBM as the ruler in the computing world.
From the ABC to the well-known ENIAC and UNIVAC, Electronic Brains is a testimony to the people who worked day and night to accomplish something that few others understood. Motivated mainly by passion and with little to no economic support, team spirit is a common factor in all the computer developments: “...it was like a brotherhood! We would help each other in case someone got stuck on a particular activity. I would have gone anywhere with those guys. I’ve never had such unified job environment. We knew we were pushing back the frontiers.”
Electronic Brains is an enjoyable book that I recommend to any person with interest in computers and technology. Computer historians could scoff at the rather simple analysis of technical details, but this is not a technical book. The value of Electronic Brains is the first-hand account of early undertakings and the multiple-country investigation that is presented. With many anecdotes, this book will serve as a witness to the pioneers of a new era, the computing era.