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8086 and All That. Revisited

Back when England was Top Nation in computing: reassembled from ancient parchments

Stob Editor's Note: Verity Stob's celebrated history of computing was first published in EXE magazine in 1997, but has been unobtainable on the internets for several years. Now, thanks to the painstaking reconstruction of small pieces of parchment, and a small monetary inducement, we can now bring it to you as a Seasonal Treat. With added Annotations.

'History as you remember it' - Sellar and Yeatman, 1066 and all that (Or some such: it seemed against the spirit of the original to check the quote, so we haven't.)

1835. Charlie Babbage invents his famous Calculating Engine, the first ever computer, which is powered by Stephenson's Rocket, and consequently four foot eight and one half inches wide. Genius père et fils engineering double act Marc and Isambard Brunel offer to create a seven foot version but, as a result of an unfortunate error in the copying of the plans, instead build the South Devon Atmospheric Railway.[1]

Stung by disappointment, Babbage switches his efforts to a dual gauge Analytical Engine, and places the first ever advertisement for the first ever programmer - an advert which has been used ever since as a model by recruiting agencies.

'Mr Charles Babbage of 147 Coprocessor Lane, Westminster Village seeks the assistance of a programmatic person, to aid him with his Government researches.

On-the-job training will be given, but applicants with Visual C++, Oracle, Tuxedo, UNIX and NT4 will be preferred.

Babbage Calculating Engines Ltd is an equal opportunities employer. Either sex may apply for this post, but breast feeding abilities considered an advantage'

Babbage is lucky enough to secure the services of Countess Ada Lovelace, at that time best known as the star of many early-Victorian pornographic lithographs. Although Babbage's working relationship with Lovelace is excellent, his interest in a practical engine for analysing coefficients of Taylor's theorem according to sundry measurements of external objects wanes, and his interest in going to bed in the afternoon waxes. Babbage's work is never completed; this doesn't matter because nobody else does any work on it either.

Thus England is Top Nation in computing for the next 100 years - a Good Thing.

1936. In Hitler's Nazi Germany, a beastly German person whose name is not important [2] attempts to reinvent the computer 10 years too early, using the bakelite knobs that have fallen off Ferguson wireless sets. Unfortunately for Herr Not Important, Lawrence of Arabia and Lawrence of Olivier are soon both on the case, and turn the tables on him using a black-and-white John Buchan plot. Thus the Empire is preserved for people who pronounce the word hands as 'hends'.

Meanwhile, in England, mathematician and pipe smoker Alan Turing proposes his famous Turing Machine, a contraption which can display and interpret a sequence of odd-looking, arbitrary symbols. Predictably he fails to interest the British Government in his idea - with all resources committed to the Appeasement Effort, there is no money available to fritter away on infinitely long paper tapes - but it is taken up by the hotel and catering industry, who subsequently manufacture a slightly modified version in large quantities. This commercial version is named after the man who effected the modifications: Professor J R Fruit.

1942. At Bletchley Park, Turing invents Robbie the Robot, a fantastic automaton which can decrypt the secret Enigma codes of the U-boats, play chess, accurately forecast greyhound and horse racing results and make polite small talk at dinner parties. Prime Minister Winston Churchill wants to send Robbie on a special mission to kidnap Hitler and end the war; but he is foiled in this wish when it turns out that Robbie is unable to override his own Prime Directive: the robot cannot harm a human being no matter how evil, or how silly her moustache.

Despondent at his failure, Robbie sets about a career as a Shakespearean actor, and eventually achieves fulfilment; his portrayal of Ariel in a 1950s production of The Tempest being particularly well received.

1950. The American company IBM launches UNIVAC, a dual vortex dataprocessor which beats as it sweeps as it cleans. Not to be outdone, British company Lyon's Maid launches Leo, a gargantuan hulk of machinery which turns out to be useless for office automation, but excellent for keeping ice-lollies cold.

1954. At Manchester University, Alan Turing is fatally wounded in a laboratory accident, when the subject of his latest Turing Test turns out not to be, as he believed, a Mark II Electronic Brain running at half clock speed, but instead an irate builder's labourer, Mr Arthur Wit. Turing dies tragically on the operating table while surgeons battle to retrieve his own left upper canine from inside his kidneys.[3]

Back at the Manchester University labs, Turing's former colleagues make what turns out to be a fatal mistake for British Computing: they decide to abandon his theoretical efforts on computer science, and instead concentrate on his pipe smoking work.

Thus America becomes Top Dog in Computing, a Bad Thing.

The 1960s. The UK continues to lag behind. In 1966, pressed by the Wilson Government 'yellow glimmer of know how' technology policy, Edinburgh University manages to build a noughts-and-crosses machine which, while not unbeatable, 'puts up a jolly good show'. It is opened by the Beatles, and in an exciting and tense match the machine loses five games to nil to Ringo (this was of course before mind-bending drugs took the edge off Ringo's noughts-and-crosses abilities).

In 1968, English Home Counties Electric Valves produces Sir Ernie, the Premium Bond random number generator, a primitive forerunner of the exciting and leading edge technology which today drives the National Lottery.

1971. Edsger Dijkstra delivers his famous ACM paper dealing with naming conventions: 'Excessive consonants considered hard to spell'.[4]

1979. At last a triumph for Great Britain! Sir Clive Sinclair's Z80-based Tangerine Microtan 65 launches. With its handsome (for its time) 'dead flesh' keyboard, its ability to drive a modified TV at a startling (for its time) rate of 405 lines per minute and its startling (for its time) sixteen byte memory, all for a knock-down price of £599.99, the machine is an immediate hit. For a while, it outsells even the former market leader the Apple Big Jobs, but eventually tragedy strikes when somebody else offers a much better computer for rather less money.

1980. IBM asks Gary Kildall to invent an operating system for the future PC, to be called OS/2. Kildall refuses, and then makes matters worse by flying around and around IBM headquarters in a biplane taunting the IBMers about 'their silly blue shirts'. IBM hires Bill Gates to blow Kildall out of the sky with an anti-aircraft gun[5], and as a token of gratitude for accomplishing this successfully hands over the rights to all computing technology forever.

And that is the end of computing history.


  1. ^ In fact the Atmospheric Railway was one of I. K. Brunel's notable engineering failures. A significant factor in its failure was the fondness rats exhibit for the taste of greased leather.
  2. ^ His name was actually Konrad Zuse, and his work is obscure in the Anglophone world. There again, practically nobody had heard of Tommy Flowers until last year. Do stop whingeing already, teutophiles.
  3. ^ In view of the real tragic events surrounding Turing's death, this account seems curiously insensitive, as well as pointlessly stealing a Monty Python joke. Stob should, and did, know better, as is shown by the following ballad (complete with stage directions) written by her for performance in celebration of Turing's 2012 centenary. The tune is Cab Calloway's wonderful Minnie the Moocher

    Folks, here's the tale how one hundred years ago
    Al Turing was born, and to school he did go.
    They fed him porridge, which sure ain't fattenin
    And they worked him all day, a-swottin' and a-Lat'nin'.
    Sing Amo Amas Amat
    Sing Amo Amas Amat!
    Hiccy Haecy Hoccy Hoc
    Hiccy Haecy Hoccy Hoc!
    Mensa mensam mensae
    Mensa mensam mensae!
    And Amo Amas Amat  
    And Amo Amas Amat!
    Up to Cambridge he began to dream
    Of a wonderful mechanical thinking machine.
    He promised the sceptics he'd prove he wasn't wrong
    When he found himself a punch tape [that was] infinite* long
    [*Grammar by Apple - think differently]
    Oh the HYPo POTen USE
    Oh the HYPo POTen USE
    Root the SUM of the SQUARES of the OTHer two SIDES
    Root the SUM of the SQUARES of the OTHer two SIDES
    [Yes that CAN be made to fit if suitably gabbled. Consider
    Mr Calloways's more tongue-twisty lines. Stop whingeing and try harder]
    Singer speaks to audience: you guys do this one first!
    [PowerPoint shows: complex maths formula]
    Singer holds hand to ear, teases audience etc - whatever suitable business occurs
    Then Churchill said: Maths ain't no stigma
    I wanna get your help to crack open Enigma
    Al's machine was great - it excelled in learnin':
    It broke the code and it also knowed Germin.

    Null, eins, zwei, drei.
    Null, eins, zwei, drei.
    Deutschland über über alles!
    Deutschland über über alles!
    Ich bin ein Berliner
    Ich bin ein Berliner
    Give us unt fag, Hans
    Give us unt fag, Hans.

    After the war it was never quite the same
    Though he set himself to make an electric brain.
    Said to a guy: would you like some Hokey-cokey?
    Before he could blink he was banged up in Chokey
    [NB: No chorus here]
    Up before the Beak who said Hey, Mister Turing
    Homosexuality is what we are curing.
    Pop this oestregen and have yourself a rest.
    When you wake up, we'll cut off your breast.
    [In the same key as rest, but sung to its own tune ie ,
    without call/response - though audience may sing along]
    Sing if you're glad to be gay
    Sing if you're happy that way, hey,  
    Sing if you're glad to be gay  
    Sing if you're happy that way.
    After that, he bit a Cox's Pippin:
    With deadly cyanide that apple was drippin'.
    If you think this tale ain't sad then your secret I've guessed:
    'Fraid you just flunked the Turing Test.

    Heedey-hee-dee-hee-dee hee
    Heedey-hee-dee-hee-dee hee
    (ie 'straight version as sung by Calloway for his verse 1)

    Poor Al, Poor Al, Poor Al.
    (Sung as CC sings 'Poor Min' at the close of the original
    with genuine melancholy.)

  4. ^A reference to the most famous of all CompSci papers. Stob commemorated Dijkstra's demise with this limerick:

    When Dijkstra his subject debated
    It wasn't just GOTO he hated.
    FOR, IF...THEN and WHILE
    Could not raise a smile,
    And TRY/CATCH he thought overrated. 

  5. ^Possibly a subliminal reference to this is an old IBM joke.

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