It happened today - June 14, 2016
Ah, the wonders of the television age. Including the mighty computer. On this date, June 14, in 1951, the world’s first real commercial computer was dedicated. Yes, dedicated. UNIVAC. By the U.S. Census Bureau. At last the government could really keep track of citizens.
It would be in the United States, paradoxically the world’s most free and prosperous nation and also its most progressive one. The world had already seen “computers” in the sense of things that computed things, including a mechanical one in 17th century France and Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine” which suffered the twin drawbacks of being mechanical not electronic (based on a loom, of all things) and never being completed for want of money. But he had worked out the basic principles of programming. Just at about minus 3 Hertz.
By the 1920s the mighty International Business Machines Corporation had pretty keen punch-card systems. And I’m not being sarcastic. The ingenuity it took to make things work without microchips should not be underestimated. But by 1939 there actually was an electronic digital computer, the non-famous Atanasoff-Berry Computer or “ABC” that could solve up to 29 simultaneous equations with 29 variables. Which my Excel software would scoff at. But can you do it without aid? ABC could.
Then by 1946 there was ENIAC, or “Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator” (arguably they needed the PR guy who came up with ABC), for a mere half-million bucks, about 2,400 cubic feet, with 17,000 vacuum tubes and 6,000 switches you plugged and replugged to program it. Man, you wouldn’t want to have to hunt down a coding error in that mess. Oh, and it weighed more than 30 tons. Not exactly your laptop or even your father’s. But don’t laugh. Then came UNIVAC, at a blistering 1,000 calculations per second and a mere eight tons. And transistors in the 1950s, integrated circuits in the 1960s, microchips, the Internet, Bluetooth, smartphones holding which we walk into fountains while gaping at stupid videos, Siri and Cortana and YouTube and headless cheetahs at a speed almost impossible to grasp.
Try it this way. It was less than half a century from those behemoths to my first laptop. And its 286 chip now seems about as mighty as UNIVAC, or for that matter Babbage’s Analytic Loom. But look how fast things moved. By now we’re seeing 3D printed buildings (yes, you read that right, in the United Arab Emirates) and soon holographs, robots with genuine people personality and any number of other horrors.
The ingenuity is staggering. But the trajectory is profoundly worrisome, especially as progress speeds up at increasing speed. It is to be wondered at. But not necessarily in the good way so many people unthinkingly hail progress.
In my view, some day we’ll miss the TV age. Heck, we’ll miss TV. That’s how bad it is.