Getting bored with history lessons

Last post’s investigation into the post-Babbage history of computers took us up to around the end of the Second World War, before the computer age could really be said to have kicked off. However, with the coming of Alan Turing the biggest stumbling block for the intellectual development of computing as a science had been overcome, since it now clearly understood what it was and where it was going. From then on, therefore, the history of computing is basically one long series of hardware improvements and business successes, and the only thing of real scholarly interest was Moore’s law. This law is an unofficial, yet surprisingly accurate, model of the exponential growth in the capabilities of computer hardware, stating that every 18 months computing hardware gets either twice as powerful, half the size, or half the price for the same other specifications. This law was based on a 1965 paper by Gordon E Moore, who noted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits had been doubling every two years since their invention 7 years earlier. The modern day figure of an 18-monthly doubling in performance comes from an Intel executive’s estimate based on both the increasing number of transistors and their getting faster & more efficient… but I’m getting sidetracked. The point I meant to make was that there is no point me continuing with a potted history of the last 70 years of computing, so in this post I wish to get on with the business of exactly how (roughly fundamentally speaking) computers work.

A modern computer is, basically, a huge bundle of switches- literally billions of the things. Normal switches are obviously not up to the job, being both too large and requiring an electromechanical rather than purely electrical interface to function, so computer designers have had to come up with electrically-activated switches instead. In Colossus’ day they used vacuum tubes, but these were large and prone to breaking so, in the late 1940s, the transistor was invented. This is a marvellous semiconductor-based device, but to explain how it works I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent.

Semiconductors are materials that do not conduct electricity freely and every which way like a metal, but do not insulate like a wood or plastic either- sometimes they conduct, sometimes they don’t. In modern computing and electronics, silicon is the substance most readily used for this purpose. For use in a transistor, silicon (an element with four electrons in its outer atomic ‘shell’) must be ‘doped’ with other elements, meaning that they are ‘mixed’ into the chemical, crystalline structure of the silicon. Doping with a substance such as boron, with three electrons in its outer shell, creates an area with a ‘missing’ electron, known as a hole. Holes have, effectively, a positive charge compared a ‘normal’ area of silicon (since electrons are negatively charged), so this kind of doping produces what is known as p-type silicon. Similarly, doping with something like phosphorus, with five outer shell electrons, produces an excess of negatively-charged electrons and n-type silicon. Thus electrons, and therefore electricity (made up entirely of the net movement of electrons from one area to another) finds it easy to flow from n- to p-type silicon, but not very well going the other way- it conducts in one direction and insulates in the other, hence a semiconductor. However, it is vital to remember that the p-type silicon is not an insulator and does allow for free passage of electrons, unlike pure, undoped silicon. A transistor generally consists of three layers of silicon sandwiched together, in order NPN or PNP depending on the practicality of the situation, with each layer of the sandwich having a metal contact or ‘leg’ attached to it- the leg in the middle is called the base, and the ones at either side are called the emitter and collector.

Now, when the three layers of silicon are stuck next to one another, some of the free electrons in the n-type layer(s) jump to fill the holes in the adjacent p-type, creating areas of neutral, or zero, charge. These are called ‘depletion zones’ and are good insulators, meaning that there is a high electrical resistance across the transistor and that a current cannot flow between the emitter and collector despite usually having a voltage ‘drop’ between them that is trying to get a current flowing. However, when a voltage is applied across the collector and base a current can flow between these two different types of silicon without a problem, and as such it does. This pulls electrons across the border between layers, and decreases the size of the depletion zones, decreasing the amount of electrical resistance across the transistor and allowing an electrical current to flow between the collector and emitter. In short, one current can be used to ‘turn on’ another.

Transistor radios use this principle to amplify the signal they receive into a loud, clear sound, and if you crack one open you should be able to see some (well, if you know what you’re looking for). However, computer and manufacturing technology has got so advanced over the last 50 years that it is now possible to fit over ten million of these transistor switches onto a silicon chip the size of your thumbnail- and bear in mind that the entire Colossus machine, the machine that cracked the Lorenz cipher, contained only ten thousand or so vacuum tube switches all told. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, and the sheer achievement behind it is worth bearing in mind next time you get shocked over the price of a new computer (unless you’re buying an Apple- that’s just business elitism).

…and dammit, I’ve filled up a whole post again without getting onto what I really wanted to talk about. Ah well, there’s always next time…

(In which I promise to actually get on with talking about computers)

A Continued History

This post looks set to at least begin by following on directly from my last one- that dealt with the story of computers up to Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines, whilst this one will try to follow the history along from there until as close to today as I can manage, hopefully getting in a few of the basics of the workings of these strange and wonderful machines.

After Babbage’s death as a relatively unknown and unloved mathematician in 1871, the progress of the science of computing continued to tick over. A Dublin accountant named Percy Ludgate, independently of Babbage’s work, did develop his own programmable, mechanical computer at the turn of the century, but his design fell into a similar degree of obscurity and hardly added anything new to the field. Mechanical calculators had become viable commercial enterprises, getting steadily cheaper and cheaper, and as technological exercises were becoming ever more sophisticated with the invention of the analogue computer. These were, basically a less programmable version of the difference engine- mechanical devices whose various cogs and wheels were so connected up that they would perform one specific mathematical function to a set of data. James Thomson in 1876 built the first, which could solve differential equations by integration (a fairly simple but undoubtedly tedious mathematical task), and later developments were widely used to collect military data and for solving problems concerning numbers too large to solve by human numerical methods. For a long time, analogue computers were considered the future of modern computing, but since they solved and modelled problems using physical phenomena rather than data they were restricted in capability to their original setup.

A perhaps more significant development came in the late 1880s, when an American named Herman Hollerith invented a method of machine-readable data storage in the form of cards punched with holes. These had been around for a while to act rather like programs, such as the holed-paper reels of a pianola or the punched cards used to automate the workings of a loom, but this was the first example of such devices being used to store data (although Babbage had theorised such an idea for the memory systems of his analytical engine). They were cheap, simple, could be both produced and read easily by a machine, and were even simple to dispose of. Hollerith’s team later went on to process the data of the 1890 US census, and would eventually become most of IBM. The pattern of holes on these cards could be ‘read’ by a mechanical device with a set of levers that would go through a hole if there was one present, turning the appropriate cogs to tell the machine to count up one. This system carried on being used right up until the 1980s on IBM systems, and could be argued to be the first programming language.

However, to see the story of the modern computer truly progress we must fast forward to the 1930s. Three interesting people and acheivements came to the fore here: in 1937 George Stibitz, and American working in Bell Labs, built an electromechanical calculator that was the first to process data digitally using on/off binary electrical signals, making it the first digital. In 1936, a bored German engineering student called Konrad Zuse dreamt up a method for processing his tedious design calculations automatically rather than by hand- to this end he devised the Z1, a table-sized calculator that could be programmed to a degree via perforated film and also operated in binary. His parts couldn’t be engineered well enough for it to ever work properly, but he kept at it to eventually build 3 more models and devise the first programming language. However, perhaps the most significant figure of 1930s computing was a young, homosexual, English maths genius called Alan Turing.

Turing’s first contribution to the computing world came in 1936, when he published a revolutionary paper showing that certain computing problems cannot be solved by one general algorithm. A key feature of this paper was his description of a ‘universal computer’, a machine capable of executing programs based on reading and manipulating a set of symbols on a strip of tape. The symbol on the tape currently being read would determine whether the machine would move up or down the strip, how far, and what it would change the symbol to, and Turing proved that one of these machines could replicate the behaviour of any computer algorithm- and since computers are just devices running algorithms, they can replicate any modern computer too. Thus, if a Turing machine (as they are now known) could theoretically solve a problem, then so could a general algorithm, and vice versa if it couldn’t. Not only that, but since modern computers cannot multi-task on the. These machines not only lay the foundations for computability and computation theory, on which nearly all of modern computing is built, but were also revolutionary as they were the first theorised to use the same medium for both data storage and programs, as nearly all modern computers do. This concept is known as a von Neumann architecture, after the man who first pointed out and explained this idea in response to Turing’s work.

Turing machines contributed one further, vital concept to modern computing- that of Turing-completeness. A Turing-complete system was defined as a single Turing machine (known as a Universal Turing machine) capable of replicating the behaviour of any other theoretically possible Turing machine, and thus any possible algorithm or computable sequence. Charles Babbage’s analytical engine would have fallen into that class had it ever been built, in part because it was capable of the ‘if X then do Y’ logical reasoning that characterises a computer rather than a calculator. Ensuring the Turing-completeness of a system is a key part of designing a computer system or programming language to ensure its versatility and that it is capable of performing all the tasks that could be required of it.

Turing’s work had laid the foundations for nearly all the theoretical science of modern computing- now all the world needed was machines capable of performing the practical side of things. However, in 1942 there was a war on, and Turing was being employed by the government’s code breaking unit at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. They had already cracked the German’s Enigma code, but that had been a comparatively simple task since they knew the structure and internal layout of the Enigma machine. However, they were then faced by a new and more daunting prospect: the Lorenz cipher, encoded by an even more complex machine for which they had no blueprints. Turing’s genius, however, apparently knew no bounds, and his team eventually worked out its logical functioning. From this a method for deciphering it was formulated, but it required an iterative process that took hours of mind-numbing calculation to get a result out. A faster method of processing these messages was needed, and to this end an engineer named Tommy Flowers designed and built Colossus.

Colossus was a landmark of the computing world- the first electronic, digital, and partially programmable computer ever to exist. It’s mathematical operation was not highly sophisticated- it used vacuum tubes containing light emission and sensitive detection systems, all of which were state-of-the-art electronics at the time, to read the pattern of holes on a paper tape containing the encoded messages, and then compared these to another pattern of holes generated internally from a simulation of the Lorenz machine in different configurations. If there were enough similarities (the machine could obviously not get a precise matching since it didn’t know the original message content) it flagged up that setup as a potential one for the message’s encryption, which could then be tested, saving many hundreds of man-hours. But despite its inherent simplicity, its legacy is simply one of proving a point to the world- that electronic, programmable computers were both possible and viable bits of hardware, and paved the way for modern-day computing to develop.