Show cover of Advent of Computing

Advent of Computing

Welcome to Advent of Computing, the show that talks about the shocking, intriguing, and all too often relevant history of computing. A lot of little things we take for granted today have rich stories behind their creation, in each episode we will learn how older tech has lead to our modern world.


Episode 134 - Beyond the Punch
This episode I'm opening up my research vault to present some interesting pre-digital technology. Back before computers us humans used to write everything down on paper. Over time that lead to some organizational issues. By 1890 punch cards show up to solve one aspect of this problem, but that technology had it's limitations. We will be looking at other paper-based approaches to data management, as I slowly try and explain a realization I've come to about the early history of hypertext.
64:10 6/23/24
Episode 133 - LIVE from Intelligent Speech 2023
I'm currently out traveling. Due to my poor planning I managed to score back to back trips, for both business and leisure. While I'm not able to get an episode out on time, I do have a replacement! In 2023 I was invited to speak at the Intelligent Speech conference. So, today, I present the audio of that talk. The topic is, of course, the wild path of the Intel 8086's creation and rise to power! If you prefer to watch, here's the video of the same talk:
41:15 6/9/24
Episode 132 - The PDP-1
In 1959 the world bore witness to a new type of computer: the PDP-1. It was the first interactive computer to really make a dent in the market. Some say it was the first minicomputer: a totally new class of machine. But where did this computer come from, and what made it so different from the rest of the digital pack? Selected sources: - Smithsonian interview with Ken Olsen - Computing in the Middle Ages - Computer Egnineerling, Bell et al.
75:43 5/26/24
Episode 131 - Computer... Books?
I've been feeling like rambling, so it's time for a classic ramble. This time we are looking at the origins of books about computers. More specifically, computer books targeted at a general audience. Along the way we stumble into the first public disclosure of digital computers, the first intentionally unimportant machine, and wild speculation about the future of mechanical brains. No sources listed this time, because I want the journey to be a surprise!
63:05 5/5/24
Episode 130 - ALGOL, Part II
This is a hefty one. I usually try to keep things as accessible as possible, but this time we have to get a little more technical than usual. We are picking up in 1964, with the first proposals for a new version of ALGOL. From there we sail through the fraught waters of ALGOL X, Y, W, and finally 68. Along the way we see how a language evolves over time, and how people and politics mesh with technical issues. Selected Sources: - Successes and Failures of the ALGOL Effort - Cold War Origins of IFIP - The ALGOL Bulletin
75:32 4/21/24
Episode 129 - ALGOL, Part I
ALGOL is one of those topics that's haunted the show for a while. It comes up any time we talk about programming languages, and with good reason. Many of the features and ideas found in modern languages have their roots in ALGOL. Despite that influence, ALGOL itself remains somewhat obscure. It never reached the highs of a C or LISP. In this series we are going to look at ALGOL from 1958 all up to 1968, keeping a careful eye on how the language evolved, how it's problems were addressed, and how new problems were introduced. Selected Sources: - Backus, 1958 IAL report - ALGOL 1960 Report - Cleaning Up Algol  
64:54 4/7/24
Episode 128 - Cryotrons LIVE!
Originally presented at VCF SoCal in February of 2024. The cryotron, a superconductive switch, almost revolutionized computing. It's one of those fascinating near misses. In this episode we are talking about the history of the cryotron, how the NSA and supercomputing factors into the mix, and the current state of research into the topic. Did the NSA actually construct a supercomputer that ran in a vat of liquid helium? The answer is... maybe? Video of this talk:
41:49 3/24/24
Episode 127 - Nim
This is going to be a wild rambling ride. In 1939 a computer called Nimatron was made. It was one of the earliest digital electronic computers in the world. It did one thing: play a game called Nim. Over a decade later, in 1951, another Nim machine hit the scene. This computer called Nimrod, was designed to demonstrate how computers worked... by playing a game of Nim. These machines, humble as they may sound, end up deeply complicating the history of computing. Join me as I, once again, muddy the long arc of progress.   Selected Sources: - Faster Than Thought - Faster Than Thought
60:32 3/11/24
Episode 126 - IBM Compatible (No, Not Those)
This episode wraps up the System/360 trilogy by taking things back to where they started for me. We will be looking at System/360 clones, how they could exist, why they existed, and why IBM didn't crush them. We close with a discussion of how these earlier clones impact our understanding of the IBM PC story. The truth is, by 1981 IBM was no stranger to clones. This is the culmination of a wild story, so prepare!   Selected Sources: - ICL: A Business and Technical History - Impact Report by INPUT
73:47 2/19/24
Episode 125 - US v IBM
My coverage of the IBM System/360 continues! In this episode we look at US v IBM, and the fallout that surrounded the release of the System/360. By 1969 IBM already had a history of antitrust litigation. What was IBM doing to upset the Department of Justice, and how does it tie in to the larger story of clone computers?   Selected Sources: - 1956 Consent Decree - 1936 Consent Decree - Folded, Spindled, and Mutilated
70:32 2/1/24
VCF SoCal - Interview with Micki and Steve
In this episode I sit down and talk with Micki and Steve about VCF SoCal, a new Vintage Computer Festival! The event is taking place in Orange, California on Febuary 16th and 17th. VCFs are a wonderful time, and a great opportunity to meet up with other retro enthusiasts. The weekend will be filled with exhibits and speakers, including myself! I will be in attendence, and talking about some super cool technology. Stick around until the end of the interview for the full details. More information on VCF SoCal can be found at:
29:31 1/20/24
Episode 124 - The Full 360
The release of the IBM System/360 represents a major milestone in the history of computing. In 1964 IBM announced the 360 as the first family of compatible computers. Users could choose a system that was just the right size for their needs, mix and match peripherals, and have no fear of future upgrades. If you started on a low-end 360 you could move up to a top of the line model and keep all your software! Something like this had never been done before. Such a watershed moment resulted in interesting cascading effects. In this episode we will look at the 360 itself. In the coming weeks we will be examining how it shaped and dominated the market, how it led to a federal antitrust suit, and how a mysterious series of clone computers survived in uncertain times.   Selected Sources: - Fred Brooks Oral History - 14K Days
63:31 1/15/24
Episode 123 - The Jupiter Ace
Released in 1982, the Jupiter Ace is a fascinating little computer. It's hardware isn't much to write home about. It's just an 8-bit microcomputer very much in line with other systems of the era. Where it shines is it's software. In a period when most home computer ran some version of BASIC the Ace was using Forth. On the surface that might sound like a trivial difference, but that one deviation from the norm made all the difference in the world.   Selected Sources: - The Register article on the Ace - Every other Ace resource you could ever want
57:35 1/1/24
Episode 122 - To Edit Text
Tools are the most important programs in the world. Without quality tools it's impossible to write quality software. One of those most important of those tools, and the most hotly coveted, is the text editor. These programs offer us a window into the digital world. It's no wonder that programmers the world over basically live inside text editors. In this episode will discuss when exactly that digital window was opened. When did text editors first appear? What forms did they take?   Selected Sources: - Colossal Typewriter Manual - Piner Oral History - The Beginnings of TECO
59:08 12/18/23
Episode 121 - Arguments Against Programming
Most accounts of the early history of programming languages all share something in common. They all have a sentence or two explaining how there was great resistance to these new languages, but eventually all programmers were won over. Progress was made, despite the forces of counterrevolutionaries. What you won't find in most histories are the actual arguments these counterrevolutionaries made. This episode we are looking at those arguments. I've tracked down a handful of papers that argue against digital progress. Are these truly cursed articles, or is there something to be learned from arguments against programming?   Selected Sources: - Why Not Try A Plugboard? - Comments from a FORTRAN User - Methods of Simulating a Differential Analyzer on a Digital Computer
64:13 12/4/23
Episode 120 - Simply COSMAC
Have you ever opined for a simpler time? Have you ever wanted a computer that you can understand all the way down to the silicon? Then RCA's COSMAC might be the architecture for you! COSMAC was a simplified computer architecture designed in the early 70s. It's tiny, cheap, and built to be easy to understand. But is the chip actually useful?   Selected Sources: - All the ELF articles in one place! - A Simplified Microcomputer Architecture
63:08 11/13/23
Episode 119 - The Batch!
This episode we are looking at a ghost of bygone days: batch processing! Before fancy terminals peppered computer rooms, before there was a microcomputer on every desk, there was the batch. In this non-interactive form of computing a user could wait hours, days, or even weeks to get a chance at computer time. Machines were kept well away from programmers, guarded by digital clerics. Why did such an arrangement exist? And did it ultimately help the programmer?   Selected Sources: - Compatible Timesharing System, 15th Anniversary - Rykman on GM-NAA I/O - Operating System Roots
60:28 10/29/23
Episode 118 - Viral Dark Ages
It's finally Spook Month here on Advent of Computing! To kick things off I'm tackling a bit of a mystery. Between 1972 and 1982 there is only one well documented virus. This period is book ended with plenty of sources and, yes, even viruses. But this decade long span of time has almost nothing! Was this era truly safe from the grips of malicious code? Or is there a secret history lurking just beneath the surface?   Selected Sources: - Worms at Xerox PARC! - Crime by Computer - Programming Pastimes and Pleasures
75:35 10/15/23
Episode 117 - What's in a Byte?
Byte has to be one of the most recognizable parts of the digital lexicon. It's an incantation that can be recognized by even the uninitiated. But where does the byte come from? Has it always existed, or did it more recently come into being? And, more specifically, why is a byte 8 bits? Is it some holdover from long ago, or is there some iron clad rule of 8's?   Selected Sources: - Buchholz on the "byte" in BYTE! - A STORAGE SYSTEM FOR USE WITH BINARY-DIGITAL COMPUTING MACHINES - The First Draft of a Report on EDVAC
63:45 9/24/23
Episode 116 - Monte Carlo
It's finally time! In this episode we are looking at the Monte Carlo method, perhaps the first practical computer program that could outpace human capability. The best part: the method relies on a random walk to reach a statistically valid answer!   Selected Sources: - Igniting the Light Elements - The Beginning of the Monte Carlo Method, Nick Metropolis
61:27 9/10/23
Episode 115 - Digital Lifeforms
I will admit, the title here is a bit of click bait. In the early 1950s a researcher named Nils Aall Barricelli started in on a bold project. His goal was to simulate evolution on a computer and, in doing so, create a perfect lab to study evolutionary processes. What he found was astonishing. Given a simple rule set these interesting patterns emerged. He called them symbioorganisms. Despite being simple numeric constructs, they exhibited many properties of living things. Did Barricelli create a digital form of life? Selected Sources: - Numerical Testing of Evolution Theories. Please, just read this paper and be amazed!
68:29 8/27/23
Reading - The Story of Mel
This episode is simply a reading of the Story of Mel. I opened last episode with an excerpt, but didn't feel right leaving it at that. So, I present, the Story of Mel as written by Ed Nather and preserved in the Jargon file.
11:01 8/26/23
Episode 114 - The LGP-30: A Forgotten Machine
In 1956 Librascope released the LGP-30, a truly wild machine. It was, for the time, the most simple and cheap machine that could actually be useful. It was the size of a desk when contemporary machines took up small rooms. It plugged into a normal wall outlet while other machines requires special power feeds. It was, perhaps, the first hint of a personal computer. And at its heart was a magnetic drum that only a true programmer could love.   Selected Sources: - The Story of Mel - Frankel's MINAC Paper - A Biography of Frankel
66:06 8/15/23
Episode 113 - Prolog, Part II
I'm wrapping up my dive into Prolog with... Prolog itself! This episode I'm actually covering the development of Prolog, using all the natural language processing lore we covered last time. Along the way we will see how Prolog developed from a set of tools, and how those tools were generalized into a useful language. Selected Sources: - The Birth of Prolog - An Introduction to Machine Translation
70:20 7/30/23
Episode 112 - Prolog, Part I
I've been told I need to do an episode about Prolog. Well, here's the start of that process. To talk about Prolog we first need to come to grips with natural language processing, it's tools, and it's languages. This episode we are doing just that, going from ELIZA to Planner ro SHRDLU in an attempt to figure out how AI was first taught human tongues, where smoke and mirrors end, and where facinting programming begins.   Selected Sources: - ELIZA - Planner - SHRDLU
68:46 7/16/23
Episode 111 - To Boldly Transmit
Space is cool, in all meanings of the word. Not only is it wondrous, vast, and fascinating, it can also be a cold place. It's also a very useful place to put things. This episode we are looking at the first practical use of space: communication satellites.   Selected Source: - The Big Bounce - A Signal Corp Space Opera - The Odyssey of Project Echo
63:17 7/2/23
Episode 110 - The Atari 2600
I don't usually cover video games. When I do, you know it's for a weird reason. This episode we are looking at the Atari VCS 2600, it's strange hardware, and how it fits into the larger story of the rise of microprocessors. These new tiny chips were already changing the world, but they brought along their own problems. Selected source: - Inventing the Atari 2600 - Al Alcorn Oral History - Bob Whitehead Interview
67:58 6/18/23
Episode 109 - What's Up With Microcontrollers?
What really is the deal with microcontrollers? Are they just little computers... or are they something totally different? This episode we are looking at the development of the microcontroller through the history of the TMS1000.              
62:35 6/4/23
Episode 108 - The Mundaneum, Part II
This episode we pick back up where we left off. We are looking at the roots of the Mundaneum, the applications of the Universal Decimal Code, and how it call connects to hypertext. Selected Sources: - Visions of Xanadu -- Selected Essays of Paul Otlet              
56:27 5/21/23
Episode 107 - The Mundaneum, Part I
The Internet is the closest we've come to a universal store of all human knowledge. However, it's not the first pass at this lofty goal. In this episode(and the next) we are looking at the Mundaneum, a project started in the 1890s to address the information problem. How is it connected to the larger story of hypertext? And how can this older project inform our views on the information problem?   Selected sources: -- Selected Essays of Paul Otlet
66:07 5/7/23

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