From arithmetic to AI
While it’s increasingly hard to picture a world without the internet, computers, or smartphones, it’s been less than 200 years since Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program in 1843, as Simson Garfinkel ’87, PhD ’05, and Rachel Grunspan observe in The Computer Book: From the Abacus to Artificial Intelligence, 250 Milestones in the History of Computer Science (Sterling, 2018).
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The book covers a range of topics, from the advent of programming languages like C and the introduction of IBM’s PC to the debut of influential science fiction shows like Star Trek. Garfinkel, a computer scientist whose current research interests include cybersecurity and privacy in big data, says that this book was an opportunity for him to explore aspects of computing that he finds fascinating.
“My editors were always telling me I put too much history in my articles,” says Garfinkel. “So now I have a history book.”
While 250 points of history provide a rich and contextualized look at computing, many other advances—such as the first calculator, which Blaise Pascal created in the 1640s—didn’t make the cut. Pascal’s machine was far less robust than Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar’s mechanical calculator, which hit the market in 1851. Garfinkel says Thomas’s arithmometer “made careful calculation possible for many, many people” and could easily be used in an office setting, making it an important step toward human-machine collaboration.
Garfinkel found plenty of ties to MIT while writing the book. In addition to developing the Apollo Guidance Computer and the seminal video game Spacewar!, MIT also had a hand in launching Arpanet in the 1960s. “The internet as we know it came into being in the fall of 1969, when three computers in California and one in Utah were connected and started exchanging messages,” he and Grunspan write. Thanks to the concept of packet switching, which MIT researcher Leonard Kleinrock, SM ’59, PhD ’63, first described in a 1961 paper, it was possible to parcel data into pre-labeled packets that could travel over the same wires, routed through the network “much as a post office routes paper mail.”
But MIT’s stand-out achievement in this field, Garfinkel says, is the creation of the Whirlwind digital computer in 1949. Commissioned by the US Navy, Whirlwind was originally meant to be a flight simulator. The first interactive, real-time computer, it pioneered the first computer graphics display (for airspace maps) and graphical input device, a “light pen” that let researchers select points on the screen. It also led to the development of magnetic core memory and helped drive the innovation of operating systems.
“One of the things that’s really clear from doing this [research] is just how important MIT was in the creation of computing,” he says.
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