12 June 1974

Lunch Address to Cupar Rotary Club (circa 1974)

Mr. President, Members of Cupar Rotary Club,

There are few of us who have not had a brush with a computer. Our gas bill, electricity bill, our bank statement are all prepared by computer with varying degrees of accuracy. Most people seem to regard the computer with a (not unjustified) degree of animosity.

But let me assure you the machine is seldom to blame. Much more likely is that myself or one of my fellow programmers is to blame. Or, even more likely, the users of the computer system have not had its subtleties explained to them.

The case of the gas bill for Zero Pounds, Zero Pence is well known. The computer is just a machine: It has no sense of the absurd. This example and many others have led to the 'computer’ being used as a scapegoat in many situations where no computer ever had any influence. So widespread is this practice in America, that the Association for Computing Machinery has set up a special committee to which members of the public may refer any alleged computer errors. The committee also initiates enquiries on newspaper reports of such errors. The result of enquiries so far undertaken show under 10% to have genuinely been in any way connected with computers. A staggering indictment of the gullibility of the public on the subject of computers.

But if the public are gullible and ill-informed on the subject of computers this is the fault of those who work with such machines. Anyone who can play chess or who can understand how to bid at bridge can understand enough about a computer to know how to use one. But most people who work with computers would talk of their work so as to make you think otherwise. The talk in the Systems Programming Department of the Bank of Scotland at the moment is of 3240s, CITs and of B37s. Three more meaningless terms would be hard to find.

They are perfectly intelligible when referred to as magnetic tape units for storing data, as Cash Issuing Terminals, and as the lack of storage space problem. The achievements of computers are many but not it might seem as great as the achievement of obscuring by acronym or by numeric reference the functions of and problems associated with computers.

However, some steps forward are being taken.

Emery Air Freight have just installed a system whereby their customers can phone a special number, speak their request and get a spoken response. All this without human intervention. The computer to do this has a vocabulary of 2000 words and is rarely stumped. And in Birmingham, Alabama, women have babies by computer. The computer is connected to probes both on and in the expectant mother and summons human help only when abnormal conditions arise. Plans are in hand for the computer to jab the mother with oxytocin whenever contractions get too slow.

The Los Angelos police, however, are looking closely at the phasing out of computers, When input data referring to gun licence holders was fed to a program on wanted criminals the results were law suits for wrongful arrests to the tune of $1½ million.

So this is all very well. It is obvious that technical progress is being made and things are getting better even if there are occasional halts and alarums along the way. But why does the computer get brought in and what in any case is this machine we refer to as a computer?

As for so many other things to this emergent industry, there is no universally accepted definition of what a computer is. We can say that it is a machine for doing calculations. If that is our definition then the ABACUS has a strong claim to be a computer and perhaps even Stonehenge can be said to be a computer. Certainly some sophisticated star machines had appeared by the 13th century which we could certainly consider to be computers.

Charles Babbage was born in 1792 in Devonshire and later found employment preparing actuarial tables for a life assurance company. The tedium of this and his own genius drove him to design an Analytical Machine. This was designed to perform computations in response to instructions but the engineering then available was not capable of building such a machine. Babbage's machine was the antecedant of our modern calculating machine.

In 1890 Herman Hollerith recorded the US Census statistics on punched card and produced a tabulating machine which sorted these cards so that the population could be broken down by age, sex, occupation and so on. Without this tabulating machine it is unlikely that the analysis of the census could have been completed before the next census. Here we see the first large-scale machine representation of data. Here also we see the use of a machine to do what man could do, but to shorten the time required so that it was worth doing. So it is with the modern computer.

Two further things are required to complete my picture of a modern computer as distinct from the definition I gave earlier. One is the use of electronics rather than mechanical means to do the calculating inherent in any definitive computer. The other and most difficult concept essential to a modern I computer is that of a stored program. A Hungarian, John von Neumann, is most often cited as the inventor of this concept in the 1940s and he certainly was concerned with the building of the first modern computer ENIAC which was completed in 1946 (see note 1 at end). International Business Machines had built a machine called Mark 1 which went into service with the US Navy in 1944 and claim this as the first electronic computer. However, it had no stored program and was electro-mechanically operated. It did, however, weigh over 2 tons, was 53ft. in length and 8ft. high.

Perhaps I can explain the concept of a program thus: lt is a series of instructions to the machine to produce given output from the data input. The cardboard with punched holes in it which controls the note that a fairground organ will play is a program. It has no input data other than its program and therefore is not a computer.

By having a program stored in it, the computer can do much more than simply carry out instructions in the sequence supplied. It can test conditions, return to repeat previous instructions and even modify its own instructions. Thus the permutations of what this computing machine may do become frighteningly large. It is because of the now wide range of things which may be done in the computer that the professional programmer came into being. He has the job of interpreting in what way the computer can do what is required and of writing the instructions required.

One of the first discoveries by this new band of people, the programmers, was that each time they wrote a program they were duplicating much of what they had done before. This led to a consolidation of the very simple routine things that a computer did into series of instructions which they called macros. Nowadays we have computer languages. Cobol is the most commonly used and all of you could read and understand a program written in COBOL. It is simply a limited vocabulary version of English or perhaps more correctly, Americaneese, To prove that even children can write programs for computers, there is a language called LOGO. With this 5 to 7 year olds can use a computer to control a mechanical turtle and, hopefully, expand their concepts of space and direction.

Currently one of the larger education authorities in the UK is prepared to spend £1m on a computer with 500 keyboards for its schoolchildren.

Why then, if programming is so simple, do programs fail to produce the desired output? A multitude of reasons. Banking people writing programs will generally give slow and inefficient programs. Computer people writing programs for Banking often give programs yielding incorrect results in Banking terms.

I'll even admit that the machine itself misbehaves from time to time. We at the Bank do not allow our cheque reader operators to touch other parts of the computer because of the static electricity they carry from the cheques.

One large Edinburgh installation had great problems with mice eating the insulation off high voltage cables and subsequent short circuits.

But one animal intervention in computing has never been forgotten. This was the occasion when the US Navy's 1st computer stopped functioning one night. Close examination revealed a night moth jammed between two electrical contacts. From that day to now any error in a program is referred to by the Americanism - BUG. So when you hear that there's a bug in a program, it's an admission of failure.

So what of the future? Ten years ago it was fashionable to refer to computers as electronic brains. A spirit of optimism prevailed. The computer would take over the humdrum, mundane repetitive tasks with which much of humanity was burdened. The leisure time available to man would lead to new impetus being given to the arts and crafts.

In the last five years or so we have seen the wheel turn almost full circle. There is talk of databanks and the undesirable uses to which they may be put. The computer is now the target of rioting students, of clerical workers fearful for their livelihood. George Orwell casts a long shadow.

The computer has, I suggest, been the subject of a hard sell. The company buying a computer for the first time has been told of economies of staff and of increased turnover due to more information being available. Initially they have found, however, hordes of expensive specialist staff having to be recruited and that the results have not been what was expected. It is a wry reflection that the only place where computers have effected economies is within the computer industry itself.

1970 saw 51,000 people employed in computing in the UK. In 1972 only 43,000, while investment in computers had risen by 28 %. However, this art of computing seems to be leaving adolescence and entering a period where we may take a more rational view of what may be achieved with computers. Let me hope that industry and commerce may view computers less as prestige items, more as useful tools for their businesses.

Finally, let me leave you with a definition of the computer which when coined in 1864, foresaw and answered many of the fears of today:-

"The computer has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us in making available what we already are acquainted with" - Lady Lovelace



(Note 1) - In 1974 when I wrote this we all thought that ENIAC was the first electronic computer. This was due to the secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park, the WWII Codebreakers. We now (2011) know that Tommy Flowers, a Post Office engineer, used his own money to produce "Colossus" for Bletchley Park much earlier. He was never fully compensated by the UK Government and died having had limited recognition for his mammoth efforts.

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Stewart Stevenson
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