Mistakes Were Made: Computer History Conference Report

On April 17, there was a full-day computer history conference at NYU called Mistakes Were Made coordinated by Laine Nooney, one of my fellow game historians. The focus of the conference was on retellings of histories that had been ‘gotten wrong’ through mistakes or omissions and examining areas of history that have been omitted or outright ignored. Although New York is quite a long way from Orlando and I didn’t have any travel budget, the conference was streamed via Periscope. The app was very effective in showing decent video of the conference – most importantly in realtime – although it was difficult to make out text on the slides and hard to make out audio in a few sessions.

My general question on the conference as a whole was how much of these historical mistakes were due to inadequacies of the initial historians and lack of material in the historical record and how much was purposefully omitted. My gut feeling is that many of these histories were forgotten simply because the historians who wrote it weren’t aware. This seems to have been the case with the Turkish computers, as they were classified inventions. (I have, however, e-mailed Ramsay Nasser regarding whether they corresponded with British computer scientists.)

The role of Fidonet and the BBS in the formation of the Internet was also clearly something that was unknown to the authors of history books – which is surprising, considering Levy’s Hackers was supposed to cover things of this nature.

I suspect some historians might have heard bits of information on things such as the Turkish computers or BBS, but it did not fit into their preconceived notions of computing history, and so were ignored as outliers.

As someone who is exploring the history of videogames and finding new and obscure information, the limitations of current game history books is certainly deep in my mind. What computing history needs is a diversity of voices, and this conference does a great job at providing this and reminding us.

Anyway, here are my notes, per popular request. They were originally posted on Facebook, but nobody reads that anymore, and my blog is a much better permanent home for them.

Ramsay Nasser just showed us research on Ottoman projectile trajectory calculating devices – Turkish computers from 1914! Devastating and deadly accurate at the Battle of Gallipoli, but creator was killed in battle. Subsequent mass-produced devices were error-prone. Turkey lost the war, and after 1920 the surviving scientists went to work at universities in Beirut. They made the calculators more general-purpose (on paper) and created computer programming models.

So there were other places in the world working on computers other than Britain in WW2. Finances made it impossible to make an actual working computer.

Note: The Turkish programmers were aware of Babbage. Similarities here to Konrad Zuse and Leonardo Torves y Quevedo, which I’ve e-mailed Nasser about.

Stephanie Dick talked about automating solving proofs. Intuition is automated through a weighting mechanism; inference is through the resolution system. Unfortunately, solving proofs isn’t very useful since it doesn’t tell us WHY the proof is true. The inventor of the resolution system, John Alan Robinson, even verifies that it is not useful for solving problems in mathematics! – OOPS!

Q&A Session: Nasser: The stories being told by the great powers of the world are the stories that continue to be told. [i.e. the victors write the history]

This suggests pushing a culture that is presumed to be superior (i.e. to program, you need to know English, since programming is in English).

Stephanie Dick talked about automation – breaking down complex math problems into simpler systems and having women computers in the 1940s solve them. This is the same thing the French did in the 1840s when calculating the territory of France, only it was barbers! (Barbers weren’t in great demand after the Revolution since they had primarily served the elite, yet they had the level of education to solve basic math problems. Other people would be enlisted to solve the problems next level up. Babbage attempted to automate this, but the French did it arguably more cheaply by hiring unskilled mathematicians to do the menial tasks and having their work be cross-checked by comparing with another unskilled laborer.)

Jason Scott‘s talk on Fidonet (BBS) was entertaining and informative.

Lesson 1: If you’re working on a documentary/historical project, and people might die soon – don’t worry about funding – JUST DO IT!!

Lesson 2: ZIP format destroyed the lives of the people who made it

Lesson 3: Computer stories aren’t just hardware stories: they are human stories, too. You can tell a story about numbers, but that doesn’t tell the human side – how it affected people’s lives. You don’t get that just by talking with the people who manufactured it – you need to talk to the people who sold it, who used it, who made businesses with it, and how that technology affected their lives.

Kevin Driscoll had a great talk on BBS as the alternate history of the Internet. Internet wasn’t a product of Silicon Valley or ARPANET, but rather the BBS because that was how people were using it for everyday things – fun things.

BBS system was made possible since the telephone system was integrated throughout the country and the plugs, addressing, etc. was all standardized and didn’t require special technicians.

The original hobbyist computer users were amateur CB radio users, and the first articles were also published in CB radio magazines.

One problem with recording this history is it hasn’t been systematically collected – it’s stored as property of individual users (in their garages, attics, storage units, etc.). It’s very costly and time-consuming to preserve this stuff.

This basically parallels my research: nobody has studied it because the material isn’t easy to find and wasn’t part of the histories earlier historians and journalists wanted to tell.

Q&A Session summary:

Jason Scott‘s wisdom:

Feb 1995 – WinSock released. This was the end of the BBS.

Also: You can get completely blackballed for counterfeiting vintage Apple II software and trying to sell it on eBay.

His comments were summed up as: Save everything. Entropy is awesome.

Stacy Horn gave an interesting history of Echo – East Coast Hang-Out, an early conferencing software. She wanted to help open up the Internet to women and discussions about things outside of tech and games.

“When they first get online, people recreate the world as they always see it.” – Thus the Internet doesn’t create anything new.

She implemented three important rules that current sites have trouble with:

1. No anonymity.
2. Rules about harassment.
3. Private conferences.

Interestingly, pictures of Horn from tech magazines of the time (including Wired) show her as “sexy” – the photography team brought makeup artists, wardrobes, and put her in cheesecake poses. This is early 1990s. Early Photoshop basically.

Joy Rankin had a great history of personal computing (teletypes in schools) in Minnesota and the development of MECC. However, it was difficult to hear the audio. Sent her a big e-mail.

Note GCC was in Minnesota. Not sure why computing companies grew in this area though. (Or where the closest DEC factory was…) I also am asking her about this.

Erica Robles-Anderson had a FANTASTIC keynote speech about PowerPoint!

PowerPoint is used by EVERYBODY – high schools, board meetings, international assemblies, churches, product pitches and business plans…EVERYTHING!!!

PowerPoint originates in 1987. It remediates older technology such as the memo (late 19th Century), the DuPont Chart (WWI), slide projector, overhead projector…

The story starts with Robert Haskins, who worked for the Hunt Company and visited Eastman-Kodak where he saw the Kodak carousel and started to think about how this could be done more efficiently with computers. This lead to the development of Presenter, which looked a LOT like PowerPoint.

Microsoft bought the company. They also bought a company called Genographics that had been making images for NASA, government, and industry. They partnered with Microsoft Graphical Business Unit – Genographics designed all the icons and graphics you see in PowerPoint!

People are used to seeing slides today since they are used everywhere. However, slides have less information than the memo – they require the presenter in order to make sense. (PowerPoint also operates like it’s 1987 – we have high-res images today and terabytes of data – something unimaginable 30 years ago – very surprising nothing has killed it yet).

Art History was made possible via the Magic Lantern, which allowed historians to show images of art and talk about it. Heinrich Wolfflein invents the double slide projection, which allows two images to be compared and revolutionizes the field.

This aside is important since PowerPoint only shows ONE image. It presents a culture of sameness since everyone uses PowerPoint. This culture needs to be documented. It also needs to be questioned:

“We should be critiquing the tools by which we make knowledge every single day.”

This will lead to a greater diversity in speech.


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