Thursday, February 24, 2005

fyi Relics of computer history in New York auction


Pointer to article:,10801,99946,00.html?source=NLT_PM&nid=99946

Kobielus kommentary:
I’m originally from Michigan, whose state motto is (smartypants that I am, I recall the Latin without having to look it up): “Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam, Circumspice.” Translated to the vernacular, that’s “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”

What does this have to do with “relics of computer history”? My feeling is that we don’t need to be reminded of computer history—it’s all around us, all the time, in all the legacy hardware we have cluttering up our homes and workplaces. I have old home computers, of the desktop and laptop variety, plus old printers, monitors, mice, keyboards, cables, software CDs, data diskettes, etc. Yeesh—enough history. Legacy just won’t go away. Our computing present is cluttered with too much computing past.

Of course, we need computing museums to hold onto the most significant relics of our computing past. We also need archival institutions to hold onto as many old hardware and OS platforms as possible, so that we can recover, use, and migrate as much of the significant old data as possible. The physical instantiations of old computing environments shouldn’t be allowed to disappear completely if they have a) archival/recovery/migration uses or b) historical significance.

One thing I’d like to see is more discussion of significant conceptual breakthroughs that lead—directly or indirectly—to modern distributed computing as we know it. One of the things I like most about this article is that it highlights the following conceptual breakthroughs, as expressed in physical artifacts being auctioned in NYC:

• “a 1946 business plan for a company to design and build a ‘multipurpose rapid computing machine of moderate cost’…drawn up by pioneers J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, whose list of possible users of their machine is remarkably prescient, if limited. It includes banks, insurance companies and government census offices.”
• “books documenting the history of mathematical calculation from the 17th century to the present day”

Many of the most fundamental breakthroughs in computing have been conceptual, in the realms of mathematics, symbolic logic, and software design and engineering. These are developments that don’t produce “relics”—rather, they produce enduring additions to the “prior art” upon which all future hardware, software, and networking inventions rely. Those inventions eventually become outmoded, hence “relics,” but the conceptual substrate continues to build.

Increasingly, the innovations in the conceptual DNA of the cyberworld don’t even produce physical journal articles or other tangible tokens of their provenance. And they don’t clutter up our physical environments. But they inform it all.