Skip to main content

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.
Review by Brian Cleg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…