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Volume 2, Number 21 -- May 31, 2005

As I See It: IT, the Early Days

by Victor Rozek

If the name Wilhelm Schickard doesn't mean anything to you, you're probably not alone. After all, the man has been dead for nearly 400 years. But while he was with us, Wilhelm was an accomplished fellow, managing to get his BA at the age of 17, and his MA two years later. An eclectic scholar, Schickard became a Lutheran minister and professor of Aramaic and Hebrew at the University of Tubingen, where his curiosity eventually turned to the study of astronomy, surveying, and mathematics.

In adulthood, he was a severe looking man with a pronounced widow's peak and a countenance that confirms a suspicion I've long held; namely, that if portraits are any indication, people living in the 17th century weren't allowed to be happy. Regardless, Schickard was a man of many aptitudes, but he is perhaps least appreciated for his most important achievement-being the father of IT.

Opinions, of course, vary, and arguably IT can trace its ancestry to the abacus. But the abacus is a beaded hybrid, not an automatic computing machine. For that matter, 30,000 years ago cave dwellers started carving notches into bones. I suppose a purist could argue that if a finger bone was used, this was indeed the world's first "digital" technology.

But I digress.

Many credit Charles Babbage, with assistance from Ada Byron, as being the parents of modern information technology with Babbage's design of an analytical engine, the first programmable machine envisioned two centuries after Schickard's death. Babbage, however, did not live to see his invention constructed. Nonetheless, its design bore striking similarities to the modern computer. Still others, who take a longer view, credit Pascal (the man, not the language) for inventing the first calculator in 1645.

Pascal is probably the front-runner for consideration as being the genesis of all things IT, perhaps because his name still resonates. After all, his contemporary Schickard never had a programming language named after him. But there is a small problem with anointing Pascal as the source of digital technology: He wasn't the first to invent it, Schickard was. In fact, Schickard invented the first-known mechanical calculator in 1623, the same year Pascal was born.

The machine contained six vertical cylinders for addition and subtraction, and eight horizontal graduated rods called Napier's bones, which allowed the user to perform multiplication and division. It had several notable features, among them it could add and subtract six-digit numbers and had a revolutionary carry mechanism to add partial products. It also alerted the user to an overflow of capacity by ringing a bell; the first error message, a feature that would later become synonymous with Windows. But although it could miraculously perform all four basic numeric functions, it remained largely unknown for three centuries.

Perhaps, as was the case with early computers, the average person could not imagine a useful application for such a device. It seems absurd now, but in 1943 even IBM chairman Thomas Watson could only envision a global market for no more than five computers. And Ken Olsen, the founder of the former Digital Equipment Corp, once asked sarcastically, "Who needs a personal computer at home?"

Nor could it have been simple to mass produce such a labor intensive device, much less market it. And unlike Pascal's device, which he modestly called the Pascaline, no examples of Schickard's work survived to inhabit dusty museums.

But his letters survived, and in one of them he describes his invention to a friend. And should the skeptics accuse him of wishful construct, his notes and plans for the invention also survived and more than three hundred years later, in 1960, a working model was finally assembled. Still, so poorly regarded was Schickard's claim that the 1958 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (printed two years before Schickard's calculator was first assembled) credits Pascal with the invention. Schickard's design isn't even mentioned. In fact, he doesn't appear in the encyclopedia at all.

Unlike the diverse Schickard, Pascal showed an early fixation with mathematics despite his father's admonitions. As an indication of how timeless parental concerns are, Pascal's father was distrustful of Parisian schools and decided to home-school his boy. For reasons passing understanding, the father forbade the son from studying mathematics before the age of 15, thereby ensuring Pascal's life-long fascination with the subject. While other boys were out sampling the sinful pleasures of Paris, Pascal was covertly studying geometry.

In 1639, Pascal's family moved to Rouen, where his father managed to get himself a government job as a tax collector for Normandy. Ever the dutiful son, Pascal spent three years developing a digital calculator to help his father count the tribute demanded by the French monarchy. According to J.J. O'Connor and E.F. Robertson, who compiled Internet biographies for Schickard and Pascal, when completed "the Pascaline resembled a mechanical calculator of the 1940s." It was not as sophisticated as Schickard's calculator, however, being essentially limited to addition and subtraction. Multiplication and division functions were performed by doing a series of additions and subtractions.

The peculiar nature of French currency at the time made Pascal's job especially tricky. "There were 20 sols in a livre and 12 deniers in a sol." A base-ten system would have been simpler, but nonetheless, over the next decade Pascal produced 50 prototypes. Unfortunately, few actually sold, and manufacturing came to an eventual halt. But because of their numbers, some of the prototypes survived.

Several years later, his notoriety waning, Pascal engineered not a machine but a scandal. Using the name Amos Dettonville, he challenged other notable mathematicians to a contest, and awarded the prize to himself. All is apparently fair in love and math. Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and clearly Pascal did not suffer from a failure of imagination.

Although both Schickard's and Pascal's inventions were revolutionary, a true program-controlled machine was still three centuries away. The first binary, floating point, programmable computer was created by Konrad Zuse in 1941. The better known Mark II, ENIAC, Whirlwind, Colossus, and UNIVAC followed several years later. Perhaps Zuse's creation, the Z3, is not as well known as some of its counterparts because it did not survive the bombardment of Germany in 1944. However, as with Schickard's calculator, the system was later reconstructed and a model is on display in the Deutsche Museum in Munich.

The Z3 consisted of 600 relays in the numeric unit, 1600 relays in the storage unit, and 1400 relays in memory. It boasted a frequency of 5.3 Hertz, and required three steps to perform an addition instruction, 16 steps for multiplication, and 18 steps for division. The average calculation speed for multiplication or division was about three seconds. Addition could be performed in under a second. It weighed 1000 kilograms, and will not easily be mistaken for a laptop. Ironically, for all its bulk and sophistication, the calculation speed of the Z3 was only a scant improvement on an abacus in the hands of an expert.

From dinosaur bones to Napier's bones, from calculators to computers; such are the threads that bind innovators across centuries and give rise to global industries. "A tool," said Henry Ward Beecher, "is but the extension of a man's hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. But he that invents a machine augments the power of a man and the well-being of mankind."

And womenkind, too.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Kevin Vandever,
Shannon O'Donnell, Victor Rozek, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
Contact the Editors: To contact anyone on the IT Jungle Team
Go to our contacts page and send us a message.


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