Mad Dog 21/21: Classics Then And Now
November 6, 2017 Hesh Wiener
In the first century BC, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman, wrote De Architectura. In it, he described the proportions of great buildings and the mathematics of the human form. During the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci studied the Roman’s work and drew Vitruvian Man. A century later, the architect Andrea Palladio reprised Vitruvian design principles in buildings across Veneto. Palladio’s seminal The Four Books of Architecture inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and countless other structures the world over. Analogously, in computing, John von Neumann or Alan Turing reprised Vitruvius, enabling IBM to serve as information technology’s Jefferson.
Long before Rome became a great power, hundreds of years before Christ, the Greeks developed a high civilization that included structures with extraordinary architecture. While relics of the early years of this culture, a period during which buildings were largely made of wood or clay, are scarce, by 600 BC the Greeks were constructing temples, town centers, theaters and costly homes from stone. They also used stone to create decorative public sculptures and monuments to their gods. Greek statues were often roughly the size of people but occasionally they were much larger, depicting deities in colossal dimensions.
The Greeks who developed their art and architecture to very high levels did not always surround their effort with comparably rigorous scholarship, documentation and record keeping. Similarly, many scientists and inventors whose pioneering work evolved to yield computers did not nor could not envision a future as rife with computers as our world. The establishment of a computer culture didn’t take all that long. Early in the nineteenth century looms controlled by software written on cards were deployed in French mills and then elsewhere in Europe. Then, in the late 1800s, similar technology was put to use managing data collected during a United States census. During that hundred-year span, Charles Babbage pioneered very sophisticated mathematical engines with powers far beyond the basic logic of weaving or the basic math of census tallies. Towards the tail end of that era William Burroughs created a personal computer, an arithmetic machine.
While a number of individuals and companies believed they envisioned a future shaped by devices that came to be called computers, no single person brought the underlying ideas into clear focus quite the way John von Neumann did. Working at Princeton during the twentieth century, von Neumann refined and explained the concept of the stored program computer far better before, around and since his time than did the many others who attempted to distill the notions that underlie computing technology. Yet von Neumann was not the only great pillar of contemporary computing. Alan Turing, who attended Princeton in the 1930’s, created an imaginary device we’ve come to call a Turing Machine that exhibits all the key properties of a stored program computer. He explained what can be computed and, in some cases, how. They were to information technology what Palladio was to the shared mathematics of classical architecture and sculpture.
Classical Greek buildings, particularly temples but other structures as well, were shaped proportionally, influenced by the golden ratio, phi (φ), which has the value (1+5)/2 or about 1.618, a little more than pi()/2, 1.57. The golden ratio is a proportion that shows up in nature, notably in the graceful shape of the chambered nautilus shell. Things, even simple rectangles, with dimensions scaled to phi are pleasing to the eye. Classical architects built structures with widths, heights and depths that were shaped with regard for phi; classical stone carvers created statues with anatomical proportions shaped by phi, too. In fact, the Greek letter phi was chosen to represent the golden ratio because it is the first letter in the name Phidias, an extraordinary artisan who lived in Athens around 500 BC.
Phidias carved many figures that are on the hilltop that includes the Parthenon. His works incorporate dimensions that reflect his belief that the golden ratio was aesthetically optimal. Other artists including not only his contemporaries but also those who studied and followed Phidias, including painters as well as sculptors, similarly paid heed to the phi-based arithmetic of beauty.
While the Greeks recorded many things about their culture, no collection of writings about the overall pattern of Greek architecture or sculpture has survived the ages, with one exception, the writings of Vitruvius. Moreover, even in the Vitruvian legacy, there is not a clear taxonomy of the three main themes in classical buildings, the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian. Nevertheless, the key themes of classical Greek architecture were carried, with great accuracy, throughout the vast realm of Greek cultural influence. After the military, economic and political power of Greece faded, eclipsed by Rome, the artistic ideas prominently displayed in things the Greeks built were preserved. They shaped the architecture of the Roman Empire. Their beauty is perpetually echoed in major buildings erected by the many civilizations that appreciate and admire classical concepts of beauty, proportion and precision.
As Rome rose, it fostered a body of preservationists bent on passing the empire’s accomplishments to its descendants, successors and admirers. Their efforts were, in some ways, far more successful than those of preceding civilizations, including that of Greece. Like the Greeks, the Romans wrote down and preserved plays and poetry, captured images in art, and built monuments to their beliefs, achievements, institutions, deities and leaders. In addition, they venerated those who studied the best minds of Rome’s past and present, including its architects and artists, and the legacies of its Greek cultural forbears.
This urge to preserve and promote an inventive scientific, technological and aesthetic culture was epitomized by Vitruvius. He recorded, analyzed and explained the principles and practices of classical art and architecture. He wrote down what he saw and the concepts he distilled from his observations. His written work, De Architectura, was preserved and copied for the great libraries of his time and all perpetuity.
Fifteen hundred years after his passing, when Rome was no longer an empire and what is now Italy was a collection of largely autonomous city-states, artists and architects found no better fount of knowledge and understanding than the thoughts of Vitruvius. Leonardo da Vinci, revered in Veneto, Firenze and Roma, was so struck by the insights of Vitruvius that he felt compelled to use the Roman’s notes on human form as the basis of an annotated sketch. The drawing, along with details of the classical ratios of an ideal male body, became one of Leonardo’s key memoranda, and one of the most carefully preserved. Scholars who gain suitable permission can see it in a museum in Venice, where it is kept in a safe, dry, usually dark place to keep it from decaying. In the illustration, a man is positioned inside a square and a circle that enable a viewer to better understand the application of Vitruvian principles and, without the use of mathematical abstractions, instantly see just how aesthetically correct the classical ratios of a physical form can be.
A few generations after Leonardo’s time, another Venetian, Andrea Palladio, revived and refined the principles elucidated by Vitruvius. Palladio designed and built structures that to this day are considered among the most stunning in a city blessed with hundreds if not thousands of great structures. Palladio’s work not only elevated Veneto but enlightened posterity in his four-volume book about classical architecture. This tribute to the Greco-Roman architectural heritage, First Book of Architecture, became a fixture in libraries across the Western world and elsewhere as well. It can be argued that Palladio’s work and writing make him the single most influential person in the entire history of architecture. Among the many who were in awe of Palladio’s brilliance was Thomas Jefferson, a principle writer of the American Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States.
As Jefferson and so many others with an interest in architecture think of Palladio as the quintessential authority on classical buildings, computer scientists revere of John von Neumann for his insight into the principles of the stored program computer. Von Neumann brought into focus the work preceding and surrounding him, describing and explaining the principles that define the kind of machine that lies at the heart of equipment ranging in size from a tiny phone of calculator to a glass house data system occupying thousands of square feet of office space.
IBM’s corporate culture seized on the computer the way Jefferson’s powerful intellect embraced classical architecture. What IBM bought to bear on the notions of information processing and the equipment it built to perform computing was an enormously powerful blend of skills. Before building computers, IBM had developed, refined and perfected a large collection of data processing machines. For the most part, these electromechanical contraptions worked with paper cards, the unit records that were classics in their own right before computers came on the scene. IBM set the highest standards for the durability of its machines, building a foundation of customer trust strong enough to support the tower of electronic computing systems that IBM would build, mainly during the second half of the twentieth century.
While all IBM’s early computers, such as the 1401 that once defined the business computing market and the 7090 line that earned the respect of scientists and, perhaps more importantly, key software developers, enjoy prominent places in the history of information technology, no single IBM product is as clearly as classic as the System/360. This was the family of computers on which IBM bet its future . . . and won.
Among the architectural concepts embodied in the System/360 and its successors, including today’s current IBM z mainframes, are the use of numerous registers for addressing, computation and the managing of contexts in a way that permits the machine to juggle multiple tasks. In addition, the System/360 used semi-independent small computers that IBM called channels to manage the flow of information between processors and peripherals, between the core system and far-flung remote devices. And even though IBM’s flagship systems have evolved through many generations of technology during their more than fifty years in the market, at the heart of the classical IBM mainframe lie hardware and software components that still incorporate the venerable Hollerith concept of the 80-column card, the unit record that IBM processed so well long before the first System/360 was powered up.
Even back when the mainframe was in its prime, IBM’s researchers, marketing experts and planners worried that a different architecture might come along and eclipse the one that formed the basis of IBM’s computing business. The upshot was a project, or perhaps more accurately a cluster of projects, charged with dreaming up what IBM would call Future Systems, or FS. One key aspect of the FS effort was the shift in emphasis inside information processing machines. Instead of putting the computing engine, the descendant of unit record electromechanical and later electronic handling devices, at the heart of each system, FS would build its processors around what was mainly a software concept, the database management system. There was a lot more to FS than an architecture largely defined by the prominence of the DBMS, but no more important notion than this when the time was ripe for IBM to add a new range of business systems to its product line.
The IBM System/38, later the AS/400, and even later the IBM i put the DBMS and software in place first, demanding of hardware engineers the creation of platforms that would open the door to a new world of applications. The descendant of FS or at least some of the key ideas in FS would become IBM’s second classic architecture.
At the same time as it was learning how to make the midrange business systems it felt might turn out to be its entire future, IBM’s mainframe developers – eager to keep their efforts moving ahead and, possibly, a bit worried that the offspring of the FS project might sweep their work aside – kept advancing the capability of the big iron. The most important developments included leaps ahead in virtualization, enrichment of the instruction set to make mainframe database processing more cost-effective, and the invention of clustering technologies that made glass house systems nearly limitless in processing power.
Along the way, client devices, even those attached to systems based on the two classical IBM themes, learned how to apply an architectural development that was well advanced by the time the Greeks built the Parthenon. In Greek’s Golden Age, the most prominent temples and other municipal structures were based on columns, much the way computing in IBM’s golden age had at its heart the processing of data arranged in columns. But some Geek structures, including examples of the superb work done by Phidias, first letter phi, hid columns inside huge sculptures. In these buildings the roof was held up by caryatids, huge standing women whose shape disguised their function as columns. Today, we hide our data columns inside graphical user interfaces, but we don’t think of the fields where we enter columns of data as caryatids.
And tomorrow, if today has any value as a signal, the classical architectures may be even more deeply submerged. The classical architectures lie far beneath exteriors that disguise (but do not eliminate) the core traditional functions once served by columns. Increasingly, we use words and finger gestures and the movement of devices to trigger actions on the part of our information systems. Phidias would probably understand this and help us perfect it. So, too, would Palladio, or da Vinci, or Thomas Jefferson, or John von Neumann, or Alan Turing. But they are not with us now, and we don’t know who can bring us the analysis and understanding needed by all of us, including computer users, information scientists, and information technology companies, most notably IBM.