Faster Than Thought. A Symposium on digital computing machines by Bertram Vivian Bowden

To add some perspective, I can start by one of the book’s assessments: the longest prime number has 2,281 binary digits. As of July 2019, the longest prime number has 82 million binary digits. All thanks to computers.

The book starts with a brief history of computation. Bowden recognizes, at a time that it was not widely acknowledged, the contributions of Charles Babbage and Ada, Lady Lovelace, to computer science. The chapter is a charming recollection of the collaborations of the two scientists. Bowden got this information from Lady Wentworth, granddaughter of Ada. Beyond the recognition of Babbage and Lady Lovelace and the establishment of a historical base for the rest of the book, the chapter is incredibly insightful.

In the second chapter on circuit components of digital computers, amazes me to read “A digital computer may contain several thousand valves…”. The modern language and concepts make easy to forget when Bowden wrote the book. At the time of publishing the book, International Business Machines (IBM) was producing the IBM 701. The first IBM large-scale electronic computer manufactured in quantity. IBM created nineteen of these machines. Any software engineer should be familiar with this introduction. The examples are simple and straightforward. But, the chapter is very technical. The author explicitly states that you can skip this chapter if it’s too technical and enjoy the rest of the book. The format of the chapter is easy to recognize for any modern student. The author introduces Boolean logic, and the construction of AND/OR gates from valves – transistors in modern books – to later build more complex circuits like adders.

Part one concludes with a chapter dedicated to programming. The author writes about code optimization and even about an interpreter – that he calls automatic coding – that converts algebraic notation into machine code. Even at this early stage, loss in efficiency made economic sense in favour of making easier to write code.

Part two lists and describes electronic computing machines that existed at the time. The chapters are technical and illustrate different machine architectures. Many machines used Cathode ray tubes (CRT), but not as a display but as a device to store data. And failing valves rates was a major consideration on building these machines.
There are individual chapters for computers from the University of Manchester, Cambridge, National Physical Laboratory, Harwell, the Telecommunications Research Establishment, Imperial College, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and Birkbeck College. Chapter 14 describes, with much less detail, some American computers like Mark I, ENIAC, UNIVAC, Whirlwind and others.

Part three contains predictions on what uses these new machines will have in the future.
The book predicts the use of computers for weather forecasting and acknowledges the limitations on the accuracy of the atmospheric data that can be gathered. But, there is no mention of Lorenz or chaos. As the chaos theory will not be born until eight years later when Edward Lorenz was using a computer to model atmospheric circulation.
Other topics covered are astronomy, physics, architecture, microeconomics and macroeconomics. All the chapters are practical, well informed, and look into a foreseeable future. All of them will become a reality in a few decades afterwards.
The exception to this practical approach is chapter 25. This chapter talks about digital computers applied to games, and Dr Turing wrote it in collaboration with the author. Most of the chapter follows the same practical style than the rest. But, the question “Could one make a machine which would answer questions put to it, in such a way that it would not be possible to distinguish its answer from those of a man?” is introduced here and will be part of the closing chapter of the book. For a few lines, the book dares to predict intelligence in machines. This is the only prediction that still has not become a reality.

The book is a product of its day. Its age makes it charming. The author and his many collaborators avoid daydreaming and instead introduce the realities of the computers of their time and forecast how computers will be used in the future. Their predictions will become a reality in the following decades. It is a book that is worth reading for its historical perspective and as a good example of good engineering thinking.

5/5 ★★★★ ★

“Faster Than Thought. A Symposium on digital computing machines ”
by Bertram Vivian Bowden
Publisher: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.
Release Date: first published 1953
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