Have you ever owned a computer that made you want to pull your hair out? Wondering if your computer would be on the top 10 list of worst computers of all time? You might be in luck. Chassis Plans, a rugged computer manufacturer, has created this interesting infographic outlining some of the worst computers of all time. From the Commodore VIC 20 to the Netbook, this visual takes you through some of the most loathed computers and the features that drove their owners mad. Name a computer problem and one of these computers probably had it. From slow processor speeds to computers that would turn on in the middle of the night to computers that would melt discs, the problems go on and on. Surprisingly some of these computers, despite their problems set records like “the first commercial computer to be used in space” or “the first personal computer to sell more than one million units.”
Archive for the ‘High Tech History’ Category
Posted in Computer Memory, High Tech History, IBM, Internet, tagged Apple, Apple computer, Commodore, computer, computer history, Gateway, Netbook, Sharp, technology on April 8, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
Pi Day is an annual celebration that takes place on March 14th (3/14) – since 3, 1 and 4 are the three most significant digits of π in the decimal form – around the world. The first official celebration of Pi Day was organized by physicist, Larry Shaw, in 1988with staff and public marching around one of its circular spaces, then consuming fruit pies. In 2009, the United States House of Representatives supported the designation of Pi Day.
What is Pi?
Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159. It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century, though it is also sometimes written as pi. The calculation of π was revolutionized by the development of infinite series techniques in the 16th and 17th centuries. Infinite series allowed mathematicians to compute π with much greater precision than Archimedes and others who used geometrical techniques. Although infinite series were exploited for π most notably by European mathematicians such as James Gregory and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the approach was first discovered in India sometime between 1400 and 1500 AD.
How is Pi Day Celebrated?
My office celebrated Pi Day today by holding a pie contest. Over 25 employees and contractors each brought in a pie and all staff was called down to the cafeteria to have a slice.
- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day. Starting in 2012, MIT has announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time”, to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.
- The town of Princeton, New Jersey (and home to Princeton University,) hosts numerous events in a combined celebration of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, which is also March 14. Einstein lived in Princeton for more than twenty years while working at the Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to pie eating and recitation contests, there is an annual Einstein look-alike contest.
- Google had it’s own Pi Day doodle posted on the site in 2010.
- National Public Radio created a Pi Day rap video in 2010.
In case you missed the celebration, mark you calendar now for Pi Approximation Day on July 22 (or 22/7 in day/month date format), since the fraction 22⁄7 is a common approximation of π. Maybe you can share a fraction of a pie with a friend.
– Carole Gunst
Regarded by many as one of the greatest commencement addresses in U.S. history, by someone who admittedly never graduated from college himself. At just over 15 minutes in length, Steve Jobs neatly, yet forcefully encapsulates his family history, professional history, and general philosophy of life. It could easily be boiled down to a mere two word phrase: “Don’t settle.”
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life … remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose … there is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Farewell, Steve Jobs. One of history’s giants who made this world dramatically better because he had lived.
[Note to readers: This is a guest post that originally appeared on the Blogineering blog. Special thanks to Dorothy Shaw for calling it to our attention.]
Many of the greatest advancements in history have come about as the direct result of those working as engineers. Engineers provide us with practical solutions for a host of problems, as well as advance practical science and technology. They take theories and ideas, and often turn them into working principles and products that better our lives. From the compound pulley system invented by the great Greek engineer Archimedes, to the tall buildings and air conditioned comfort we enjoy today, engineers have been at the forefront of our technological advancement.
While there have been many notable engineers throughout history, there are some whose inventions and insights have been exceptionally useful. From engineering students tinkering to improve old designs, to the engineers who have discovered sweeping laws that affect the way we view the scientific world, here are 20 of the most notable engineers:
- Archimedes of Syracuse: No discussion of notable engineers can leave out Archimedes of Syracuse. No matter how you might quarrel with other additions on any list of great engineers, Archimedes must be on the list. He was a keen observer and inventor, developing engineering principles of fluid displacement, as well as inventing the compound pulley — one of the most important inventions in all of history.
- Francis Bacon: The scientific method owes its existence to Sir Francis Bacon. A true Renaissance man, Bacon was also a philosopher, statesman and lawyer in addition to being a scientist. He died in the name of science, as he fell victim to pneumonia during one of his experiments as he studied the effects of freezing meat.
- Daniel Bernoulli: Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bernoulli Principle? This is the principle of fluid dynamics that is used in the construction of aircraft to determine air speed. It was discovered by Daniel Bernoulli, son of a renowned mathematician. Bernoulli also discovered how to measure blood pressure, and was well known for his work on the Conservation of Energy.
- John Logie Baird: The Scottish engineer John Logie Baird invented a mechanical television. While Philo T. Farnsworth would be credited later with developing the dissector tube that made electronic TV possible, Baird is credited with providing the first televised objects in motion, and the first televised human face, as well as demonstrating color television in 1928.
- Henry Bessemer: One of the most significant building advancements was the production of inexpensive steel. And the engineer who created the process for mass-producing steel was Henry Bessemer. Bessemer had been working on a process similar to American William Kelly’s process, and he bought the patent from Kelly. Today, steel is still made using process based on Bessemer’s method.
- Gustave Eiffel: The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France was named after someone; that someone was Gustave Eiffel. This French civil engineer contributed to structural architecture, and enhanced metal construction of bridges.
- John Ambrose Fleming: Sir John Ambrose Fleming is the inventor of the first vacuum tube. His engineering feat is known as the precursor to electronics — even though the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated his patent.
- Edwin Armstrong: The American engineer Edwin Armstrong is know for his innovation of frequency modulation (used in FM radio and for other purposes). He was also known for superheterodyning and regeneration.
- Seymour Cray: In today’s computer dominated society, it is important to pay homage to Seymour Cray, the engineer believed to be the founder of supercomputing, and the first to build a device making use of functional parallelism architecture.
- Wernher von Braun: One of the most important rocket developers, especially of rockets for the space exploration effort, was Wernher von Braun. Initially working for the Nazis, developing the V-2 ballistic missile, von Braun later surrendered to the Americans — along with 500 rocket scientists — and came to work in the U.S.
- Robert Goddard: Even though the New York Times panned Robert Goddard’s theories of travel to the moon by rocket, he had the last laugh. He built the first liquid-fueled rocket, and it has been a source of technological advancement for decades.
- Arthur Casagrande: One of the greatest contributors to dam building and other earth construction was engineer Arthur Casagrande, a pioneer in soil mechanics.
- Henry Darcy: The modern style Pitot tube was invented by Henry Darcy, an engineer who developed a law describing flow in porous media. Today, Darcy’s achievements can be seen in hydrology and petroleum engineering.
- Wendell Bollman: When you see truss bridges spanning great lengths, you can thank Wendell Bollman, a self-taught civil engineer. His designs for ferry bridges and other truss bridges have influenced us for decades, even though there is only one remaining “Bollman truss” bridge still in existence.
- Thomas Brassey: This civil engineer is notable for his prolific railroad building. Thomas Brassey was the premier contractor for railroading building throughout Europe, and is also responsible for Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway.
- George Stephenson: English civil engineer George Stephenson built the first public railway in the world that made use of steam locomotives. He was also friends with Thomas Brassey, and encouraged him to contract to build railways. The world’s standard railway gauge is the Stephenson gauge, named after the man who developed it.
- Willis Carrier: Do you enjoy air conditioning in the summer? If so, you can thank Willis Carrier. Carrier’s first air conditioning success came only a year after he earned his Masters in Engineering from Cornell. And the rest of us have benefitted every since.
- Burt Rutan: One of the most influential aerospace engineers is Burt Rutan, whose innovative designs are prominent in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is responsible for SpaceShipOne, the first private rocket plane to put a person in space, and for the first airplane to make it around the world without needing to refuel.
- Fazlur Khan: Considered to be central to the “Second Chicago School” of architectural design, Fazlur Khan is largely responsible for inspiring some of the most interesting structural engineering feats of the latter half of the 20th Century, changing skyscraper construction.
- Judith Resnik: Focus on the tragic Challenger explosion often centers around teacher Christa McAuliffe. However, Judith Resnik, a NASA engineer, also perished in the flight. She had worked on orbiter projects, and influenced design procedures related to special integrated circuitry.
Posted in High Tech History, tagged art, Computers, Digital Equipment Corporation, Dushko Petrovich, Louvre, MIT, Museum of Modern Art, New Tendencies, Sherry Turkle, Yugoslavia, Zagreb on August 8, 2011 | 2 Comments »
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of what came to be known as the New Tendencies movement of computer art. As has been previously noted here at High Tech History, the earliest iterations of computers adopted a monolithic, emotionless, almost Bauhaus-ian severity that emphasized simplicity over complexity, function over form, and utility over creativity. But it would be short-sighted to believe that computers were not capable of great feats of artistry and even humanity.
With regard to the latter of those anthropomorphic attributes, and the powerful human responses they can engender, author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle noted in her recent book, Alone Together:
“My first brush with a computer program that offered companionship was in the mid-1970s. I was among MIT students using Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, a program that engaged in dialogue in the style of a psychotherapist … Weizenbaum’s students knew that the program did not know or understand; nevertheless, they wanted to chat with it. More than this, they wanted to be alone with it. They wanted to tell it their secrets.”
Computers were also capable of creating inventive and absorbing games, such as “Spacewar” that MIT students devised with Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1 mainframe. And in what was the first instance of interactive gaming, the PDP-1 was engaged to play a game of “Kalah” – where Harlan Anderson, the co-founder of Digital, operated a terminal in California, and through a primitive “modem,” played with his colleague, Alan Kotok, seated at an identical computer in Maynard, Massachusetts, where Digital was based.
As in these cases, art was also an area of considerable interest for creatively-inclined computer engineers. The so-called “New Tendencies” movement was a short but intense artistic experiment that took place in Yugoslavia fifty years ago but has been influential far beyond that time and place in the intersection of computers in art. With an exhibition mounted by Matko Mestrovic at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Zagreb, Yugoslavia in 1961, the New Tendencies movement advocated strongly that the “thinking machine” was adopted as an artistic tool and medium. Pursuing the idea of “art as visual research,” the New Tendencies movement embraced the medium of computer-generated graphics, film, and sculpture.
This pioneering work has now been strikingly displayed and chronicled in a new tome published by MIT Press: A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961-1973, edited by Margit Rosen. The book includes new essays by Jerko Denegri, Darko Fritz, Margit Rosen, and Peter Weibel; many texts that were first published in New Tendencies exhibition catalogs and Bit International magazine; and historic documents. Including more than 650 black-and-white and color illustrations, this book offers testimony to both the exhibited artworks and the movement’s protagonists. Many of the historic photographs, translations, and documents are published here for the first time. Bit International magazine, the chief chronicler of this phenomenon, was a beneficiary of the participation of computer enthusiasts from the farthest reaches of the western and eastern hemispheres. And after only a few years, images from New Tendencies started to find their way into landmark exhibitions at museums such as the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Though nowadays it is commonplace, at the time this movement began in 1961, computers were typically in university, corporate, and military domains; so for such an innovative and seemingly incongruous use for computer technology to arise was a monumental achievement, by any stretch of the imagination. And the power of these machines to evoke emotional and other very human responses through artistic expression is compelling, wondrous and dramatic. And writing in the Boston Globe, Dushko Petrovich, a painter and critic who teaches at Boston University, notes: “Peering into the age before computers is already tricky enough, but the New Tendencies art shows us something more disorienting: a time when the computer offered total respite from the political, the commercial, the social, and the everyday.” And MIT Press concludes about their publication on New Tendencies, “Taken together, the images and texts offer the long overdue history of the New Tendencies experiment and its impact on the art of the twentieth century.”
Posted in High Tech History, tagged Bronski Beat, Buxton Orr, Colin Newman, Communards, EMI Records, John Cale, Kate Bush, Lene Lovich, Mike Ratledge, Mike Thorne, Oxford University, Sex Pistols, Soft Cell, Soft Machine, Stereo Society, Synclavier, Til Tuesday on July 27, 2011 | Leave a Comment »
Two Wednesdays ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Mike Thorne, a classically-trained musician whose career as A&R (Artist and Repertoire) Man and producer of such notable musicians as Soft Cell, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Til Tuesday, Soft Machine, Bronski Beat / the Communards, Lene Lovich and John Cale (to name but a few), is well-regarded and established. Beginning in the mid-1970s, his talent cultivation for EMI Records resulted in bringing musicians such as the Sex Pistols, Kate Bush, and subsequently, Wire - several of whose albums Mike also produced – to that label.
But what is less known about Mike Thorne is his affinity and talent for the high tech side of music. As I noted in a previous post for High Tech History, he was the very first to purchase for commercial application the electronic music composition and sampling system, the Synclavier. In 1979, having flown to the states with Mike Ratledge, founder-member of Soft Machine (and himself a classically-trained pianist and fellow graduate of Oxford University) on “a couple of cheap tickets,” he visited the Synclavier’s manufacturer, New England Digital Corporation of Norwich, Vermont. Thorne said he thought the three innovators of that company “complemented each other well”: Sydney Alonso the electronics expert; Cameron Jones the code programmer, and Jon Appleton, the Dartmouth College music professor and authority on electronic music. On this particular journey, he met Jones and Alonso; but later got to know and like Appleton equally well.
The cathedral bells he heard the first time he placed his hands on the Synclavier’s keys were the Siren call. He knew immediately he had to have this device – even though, in his own words, it cost the equivalent of a year’s retainer at EMI. Sydney Alonso later told Mike he believed this particular machine was the sixth one produced – the other five being in the hands of “more academic people” at universities.
After Mike received his Physics degree from Oxford in 1969, he could have worked in any number of scientific fields. But he chose instead to follow a personal passion: the science of music. This led him to devise a portable disk jockeying system he had personally crafted and modified from various electronics equipment. And though he modestly confessed to me he is “not a tinkerer,” who had only a minimal enthusiasm for the intricacies of a machine’s inner workings, he possessed more than sufficient aptitude and motivation to invent his own “disco” system, which he employed at, among other venues, private parties and some London clubs.
In 1971, Thorne entered Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study composition under the tutelage of Buxton Orr; but his continuing interest in popular music led him to become exposed to a wide variety of musicians and musical genres and resulted, seemingly inevitably, to the A&R position he secured with EMI in 1976. And though the tunes he occasionally spun as a DJ included the Doors and other more established and comparatively conventional rock groups, the talent he was beginning to cultivate and nurture at EMI had increasingly un-conventional attributes.
The mid-1970s brought Punk Rock to England, which drew on some American acts like the Ramones, the Stooges, Suicide, Television, and a relatively small clutch of other, largely New York City-based bands. Mike, on the other side of the Atlantic, facilitated the signing of the Sex Pistols to EMI – a band that, in many ways, superseded and commercially pre-empted the New York scene – not least because of their passionate, compelling and widely-shared anti-establishment message. Mike shortly thereafter became EMI’s house producer and went on to produce another Punk group, Wire, which he considers one of his fondest achievements. His Punk credentials reached their acme with his production of Live at the Roxy WC2, widely considered a cornerstone of the genre. But even throughout this musically “stripped down” period, the Synclavier was never very far-removed from his musical repertoire. In fact, Thorne purchased his Synclavier after producing the third Wire album, 154. It then featured on former Wire frontman Colin Newman’s first solo album, A-Z, recorded in 1980 after the band’s breakup.
During the 1980s, Thorne used his appreciation for new technologies and musical concepts to take popular music to new aesthetic heights. The Synclavier played a crucial role in such dance club standards as Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, the Communards’ Don’t Leave Me this Way, and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. And though it played, in Thorne’s words, “a comparatively minor part” in his production of John Cale’s 1982 release, Honi Soit, it helped establish the technological continuum that was becoming Thorne’s trademark.
the Communards – “Don’t Leave Me This Way”
During the 1990s, Thorne’s work with Warner Music resulted in his creation of The Stereo Society, an interactive, web-based, multi-media recording and publishing company that comprises and utilizes Thorne’s personal recording studio – the product of decades spent in his pursuit of both the innovative and inventive in music composition. Anchored by his much-loved Synclavier, Mike has used his studio to explore new concepts in musical recording. With the Internet and other virtual resources changing the landscape of the music business so quickly and in so many ways – both commercially and creatively – Thorne believes that giving listeners more options to access his company’s music will result in added opportunities to market The Stereo Society’s offerings. He also believes strongly in his studio’s ability to drive the creative process. As Mike told Tom Flint of Sound on Sound (a Cambridge, England-based music technology magazine) recently: “Creative people are everywhere – you just have to give them toys.”
A great series in the NY Times this week written by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris trying to find out if his late brother Noel had been an inventor of electronic mail. Driven by a desire to learn more about his family, Morris began his journey by telephoning Tom Van Vleck, a colleague of Noel’s at MIT, which immediately bore fruit. Van Vleck, as it turned out, was himself a twig on an illustrious and accomplished family tree, which he had also researched.
Along the way, Morris obtained historical documents and photos that backed up Van Vleck’s claims that Noel was there with him at the beginning. A fascinating series about one of the most revolutionary developments in the history of high tech and the brilliant people who were responsible. There’s even an interactive feature in this article where you can write your own code and send an email from 1965.
Posted in High Tech History, Innovation, tagged Bronski Beat, Cameron Jones, Electronic Music, Frank Zappa, Genesis, Jon Appleton, Mike Thorne, New England Digital Corporation, New Wave Music, Siouxie and the Banshees, Soft Cell, Stanley Jordan, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Sydney A. Alonso, Synclavier, Synclavier II, synthesizer, Tony Banks on June 13, 2011 | 1 Comment »
Synclavier I: Invention, and the creation of an industry
The Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer, sampling system and music workstation, was developed by the New England Digital Corporation (NED) of Norwich,Vermont; the prototypical model having been invented at Hanover, New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College in 1975. Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton, Digital Electronics expert Sydney A. Alonso and Engineering software programmer Cameron Jones collaborated in its invention.
According to a 2005 story in the Dartmouth Engineer, the prime motivation for the Synclavier’s development was that “The Moog synthesizer, the prime electronic instrument of the 1970s, linked a piano keyboard to an analog computer — but it had no memory. Wanting something better, Dartmouth music professor and composer Jon Appleton turned to [Dartmouth’s] Thayer School [of Engineering].”
The resulting Synclavier was the world’s first digital synthesizer, and pioneered digital sampling, hard-disk recording, and professional sound editing. “It did so many things, and the software was so beautifully integrated,”Appleton later remarked.
In 1972, Jones and Alonso met at Dartmouth, where they were both working on programming the college’s large, time-sharing computer. Together, they developed software for the computer that allowed it to produce electronic music and, under Appleton’s tutelage, aid with students’ ear training.
Within the next three years, in addition to graduating from Dartmouth, the two men were able to create a 16-bit processor card and then adapted the computer’s compiler for the new processor. This new “miniprocessor” – the ABLE – was the first product for Jones and Alonso’s new company, New England Digital. It was designed to help users avoid having to book time on large, mainframe computers (most academic computer labs in this period operated on a ponderous “time sharing” basis).
Out of the research, the men crafted their new instrument, which they called the Synclavier (pronounced, in three syllables, Sink – la – veer). It was intended as a commercial outgrowth of their “Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer,” which included the ABLE processor. In 1979, they raised some venture capital and brought in another partner to oversee the marketing of their new “Synclavier II.”
The Synclavier II was revolutionary because it introduced both a terminal display and keyboard and allowed for both software additions and revisions that could even be retrofitted on earlier versions of the device. Encouraged by the success of these developments, in 1982-3, the company added significant “sampled” sound recording and playback capabilities directly from the unit’s hard drive. And with the addition of the graphics terminal, it was possible to analyze and edit sounds in a visual, as well as aural context. This figuratively opened up the flood gates to virtually unlimited possibilities of sound production and “post-production” editing, which made the system very attractive to both the music and film industries.
Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton demonstrating the Synclavier II (1984)
Decline, fall & resurrection
All of this innovation cost money – a lot of it. Units began at $75,000 and to outfit a proper studio, the price could reach $500,000 or even beyond. One account, from a website called “Yaking Cat Music Studios History,” added a little bit of cheeky perspective on NED’s pricing strategy: “The prices on Synclaviers were based on two primary factors. Those who owned the machine or needed parts generally had money to ‘burn,’ so to speak. NED took advantage of this. Second, there were about 11 guys at the top of the company pulling down six-figure incomes. Sting was paid to perform for the NED employees and their spouses at a big gala at the Roxy in N.Y. There were NED offices across the globe with marble desks. Spend, spend, spend. And make your customers pick up the tab.”
Throughout the 1980s, the Synclavier was the musical device of choice for musicians such as Genesis’ Tony Banks, Sting, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Stanley Jordan, and numerous others. The machine’s ability to augment musicians’ guitar work though a specially-designed interface was unparalleled; but as that decade passed into the ‘90s, NED, due largely to the price of equipment upgrades, started to lose market share and opted to “repackage” itself in less expensive fashion. They began to move from their original mission of support for musical instruments toward post-production and editing software.
A silver lining to this lateral movement was that there was really no manufacturer who could offer a machine that was so perfectly suited to motion picture and television production. The software upgrades were spell-binding for those who could afford them, and the sound was unparalleled. It is safe to say that this is what rescued the company over its history; but regardless, NED passed into history itself in 1992, only to be resurrected, like the phoenix from the ashes, on several occasions in various permutations. It’s interesting to know that there are still over 100 units of the Synclavier and Synclavier II still in use today in various capacities, and part of the reason for that is their durability.
One example of the Synclavier’s reliable construction involves the B-52 military airplane. NED went out of its way to choose uncompromising materials for the manufacturing process. And one of those choices involved the famous red buttons the B-52 used on its control panels. It’s been suggested that the company’s decision to select superior components was designed to help prop up the instrument’s price tag; but experience has also revealed it was essential to construct units that could hold up to the punishment of musicians – spilled drinks, cigarette ashes and pounding fists included.