Science: The Thinking Machine

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On Oxford Street in Cambridge, Mass. lives a sibyl, a priestess of science. Her devotees take their problems to her as devout ancient Greeks took their insolubles to Delphi. She is no mumbling, anonymous priestess, frothing her mouth with riddles. Her name is Bessie*; she is a long, slim, glass-sided machine with 760,000 parts, and the riddles that are put to her and that she unfailingly answers concern such matters as rocket motors, nuclear physics and trigonometric functions.

For a computing machine, Bessie is old: she has been steadily at work since 1944. And she is not the brightest of her breed. Compared to her children and grandchildren (one of whom, Harvard's Mark III —see cover—lives on the floor below in Harvard's Computation Laboratory), she is dim-witted and slow. But Bessie is a progenetrix, a sort of mechanical Eve. By proving what computing machines could do, she started one of the liveliest developments in modern science.

Some scientists think that Bessie's descendants will have more effect on mankind than atomic energy. Modern man has become accustomed to machines with superhuman muscles, but machines with superhuman brains are still a little frightening. The men who design them try to deny that they are creating their own intellectual competitors.

Seed of the Abacus. The calculating machines that are Bessie's ancestors have roots far back in the past. The abacus, used in ancient Egypt and still used in much of Asia, is a simple figuring device. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) designed a mechanical calculator when Louis XIII was king. The present adding machine is a remote descendant of Pascal's design.

But an adding machine, compared to one of Bessie's breed, is a dumb, limited brute. It accepts numbers through its keyboard and "remembers" them by the setting of its mechanism. When the operator gives a command by pressing another key, the machine adds or subtracts the numbers in its "memory." Then it stops, waiting for another command.

Bessie and her children do not stop and wait. They accept not only a flood of numbers but also elaborate instructions (often in the form of holes in a paper tape). When all the facts are in, the operator presses a starting button—and the machine quickly does the rest.

It may, for example, multiply a 16-digit number by another number just as long, subtract something from the product, square the result and add something to the square. From time to time it refers to tables of figures imbedded in its memory, selects the proper figure and includes it in its calculations. It remembers intermediate figures for a fraction of a second, uses them when needed, and then rubs them out like chalk marks on a blackboard. It does all these things and more, without mistakes, faster than a human being can jot down a single figure. When the machine is through with one calculation, it rattles out the answer on an electric typewriter and starts the next job in a flash.

What practical jobs can a calculator do? Merely describing its complex problems would require difficult mathematics, but there are some simple examples.

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