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.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr