Sleepy in Seattle

What does one do to stay awake in Seattle after getting up at 3am, 14 hours of travelling and an 8 hour timezone shift? In my case, grab a coffee (how native) and head to the awesome Seattle Public Library. Without much of a plan, apart from staying awake. As it turns out, I randomly stumbled upon an archive of Communications of the ACM dating back to the very first edition, in 1958.

1958 was a strange old world. Things considered newsworthy: buying a new computer (as in, ‘Foo University has purchased an IBM 456 with 2048 bytes of memory’), upgrading the memory in your existing computer (particularly when you are building said memory from scratch yourself). Other articles included puzzles similar to chess end-games – ie. implement [trivial operation] using only 6 bytes of IBM xyz machine code but without using any jump operations.

I skipped forward to November 1976, the month I was born. An article by Jim Gray on db locking in which it’s necessary to define the term ‘transaction’ explicitly. The previous month, there’s an early paper about texture mapping by Jim Blinn with lots of pretty pictures. Again, it’s enlightening to see ‘basic’ stuff being laboriously explained .. for example, why you get aliasing effects if you sample the texture naively. But wasn’t “basic stuff” back then; it was the frontier of knowledge.

Only the flight across, I was reading a biography of Oliver Heaviside. The book covers both his physics work and also the world, time and society that he lived in. In particular, it’s fascinating to read about how resistant (sic) “practical” electrical engineers were to the new-fangled mathematics-wielding theoreticians who had started to dominate the field. There were many vocal engineers who were quite sure that they didn’t need “all that maths stuff”.

For every success story celebrated and enshrined in today’s textbooks, there were many other forgotten voices arguing against that viewpoint in the publications of the day. I’m sad that almost every textbook I read at university missed out all of this rich tapestry – instead they provided a neatly cut-and-dried distillation, devoid of any human context. To me, real science was. and presumably still is, a process of muddling around in a sea of uncertainty and conflicting schools of opinion. I seemed to learn about the abstract scientific method (very useful!) but not so much about the day-to-day struggles of real scientists. Much later, I found my way to Thomas Kuhn and biographies of Faraday, Maxwell, Boltzmann, etc. And there I found a much more interesting picture, crucially explaining the ideas in their original context.

So it’s nice to be able to go back to the original sources and imagine what it might’ve been like to be a ‘computer person’ in 1958 .. to see what kind of ideas were thinkable in that time, to see who was prodding at the boundaries, and to see how much is recognizable today.