Friday, 4 March 2005

Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age – Mike Hally ****

Click, whir, when I was a lad, in films and TV computers were always portrayed as banks of flashing lights and big rotating magnetic tape units. When I later saw computer rooms I understood the mag tapes (though they were much less in the foreground), but where were those flashing lights? This book delightfully takes us back to the days when computers were collections of valves (tubes), and it wasn’t unheard of to stick half ping-pong balls over the protruding heads of the valves to produce those entertaining banks of flashing lights.
What’s amazing about the story is the strands of parallel development that never get mentioned. Most people, if asked, would assume the electronic computer started in the USA after the Second World war (probably made by IBM). In fact it’s arguable whether the US or the UK were first (depending on how you define an electronic computer), and Russia and Australia were both close behind.
There are fascinating descriptions of ENIAC, the original US giant with its 18,000 valves pumping out vast quantities of heat, but perhaps the most delightful story (told at greater length in a separate book) is that of LEO, the amazingly early computer developed by Lyons, the company behind the Corner tea shops that were incredibly popular in the UK between the 1920s and the 1950s, to control their very centralised empire of cakes and fancies.
The book falls short of the full five stars because it’s a bit of an enthusiast’s story – it isn’t going to appeal to everyone – but it’s both enjoyable and instructive to see where the devices that permeate home and work so thoroughly now came from.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Cleg

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