Belmont Club

The Giant Brain

When Electronic Brains were in their infancy the general public knew so little about computing that their workings appeared to be a species of magic.  Science fiction author Arthur Clarke wrote a short story The Nine Billion Names of God built around the ability of electronic computers to process text. In it, Tibetan monks hire two 1950s programmers to find all the combinations in a sacred nine character string which spell out the name of God, “since they believe the Universe was created in order to note all the names of God and once this naming is completed, God will bring the Universe to an end.” The monks had been doing it by hand and figured it would take another 15,000 years, so they rented a computer.

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The operators engage the computer. After three months, as the job nears completion, they fear that the monks will blame the computer, and by extension its operators, when nothing happens. The Westerners delay the operation of the computer so that it will complete its final print run just after their scheduled departure. After their successful departure on ponies, they pause on the mountain path on their way back to the airfield, where a plane is waiting to take them back to civilization. Under a clear starlit night sky they estimate that it must be just about the time that the monks are pasting the final printed names into their holy books. They notice that “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

Today most people will marvel that it once took as long as three months to calculate such a trivial result. But in those days the manual processes were still the benchmark by which things were done. People did things “by hand”. And even when they entrusted things to the Electronic Brain they liked to think that if something went wrong they could go back to the way things work. Another Clarke story, Into the Comet describes the efforts of space travelers (remember them?) who find their navigational computer has gone kaput on their way to a comet. With the electronics gone, the crew calculates their burn by hand — with a little help from analog devices.

George Pickett, a part-Japanese journalist on board the ship, recalls the use of the abacus used by his granduncle, a bank teller, and persuades the ship’s astronomer to give it a try. Once convinced, the astronomer create a production line of the crew, using abaci to carry out the calculations that the computer would normally do. The procedure is successful and an orbit is calculated to bring the ship within radio range of Earth.

Perhaps the choice of the word “Pickett” was not entirely coincidental. I have a feeling that Pickett’s classmates in college were Keuffel and Esser. The associations as well as the analog skills, are lost; possibly lost forever. Glenn Reynolds has been having fun at Instapundit observing that people no longer know how to use rotary phones. You know, the kind you “dial”?

YOU CAN STILL BUY ROTARY PHONES. I wonder if they come with how-to-dial tutorial videos for today’s youth? I’ll bet they’re not up to classic Western Electric standards, though.

UPDATE: Hey, no fair — closer inspection reveals that they’re faux rotaries, with push buttons not real dials. This reminds me of an interesting question: In the old days, you could pulse-dial a phone by clicking the receiver hooks up and down — 3 times for a 3, 10 times for an 0, etc. — but can you do that anymore? Assuming you’ve got a phone with a hook, that is, and not a “talk” button.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Craig Forrest writes: “You can still buy western electric rotaries…I have two and my kids love them!”

And reader Clifford Grout writes: “Our current home had a 60’s rotary wall phone in the kitchen when we bought it, and we have kept it for – I must be honest here – purely comedic reasons: It gives my wife and myself no end of amusement watching our kid’s friends trying to make a phone call. Never fails – they put their fingers in the holes, press as hard as they can…”

I am sure Pickett in Clarke’s story would have known how to operate one of these. And yes, you can use them as rulers.

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