Just don't mention the war...

Two nights ago, Jeremy Clarkson’s documentary about the history of computing was broadcast here in the UK. We were told about Mr Babbage and his attempts to build mechanical computers. (Overbudget, government IT projects were invented in Britain in the Victorian era, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we’ve reached such an advanced state with them. The spat between Charles Babbage and Joseph Clement (the construction engineer) is well-documented at the Science Museum.)

I enjoyed hearing about the story of Bletchley Park, and about how the pioneering work done there probably shortened the second world war by a year saving thousands of lives. The documentary mentioned Alan Turing, who amongst other things, is well-known for establishing the theoretical limits of what can be solved by computer.

Clarkson emphasized the role of Tommy Flowers, a post office engineer that built the machinery used at Bletchley: It’s one thing for a brilliant mathematician to have insight, but it takes astonishing amounts of gumption to translate those abstract ideas into roomfuls of working electronics that can solve problems. When Clarkson spoke about Flowers, it felt as though he was on home ground. He cast the whole thing in stereotypical Wallace-and-Grommit, “Heroic British Inventor Changes The World But Is Ignored By The Establishment” fashion. When I was listening to this, I expected to hear Elgar in the background and see photographs of nineteen-forties geeks in cloth caps wearing brown overalls, smoking pipes and staring at complicated line drawings.

What Clarkson didn’t say is that during the Second World War, a German mathematician named Konrad Zuse also made a number of contributions to the development of computers, including the use of the binary number system and floating-point numbers. (Every microchip designed today has been influenced by these fundamental contributions.) Unfortunately, those early machines made in wartime Germany suffered at the hands of “Bomber Harris”. Despite the neferious uses to which the Nazis put his machines, we owe Zuse a debt of gratitude. As a software developer, I’m indebted to Zuse for his work on Plankalk├╝l which has contributed to the development of modern, high-level programming languages.

Playing up the British contributions, portraying the Americans as intellectual thieves and overlooking everyone else demonstrated the historical pitfalls that the History of Computation course at UWS seeks to avoid. As the course blurb explains:

“A distorted history can distort our picture of the present and future.”

On the whole, Clarkson did a good job of explaining why the history of these ideas is exciting and relevant. It wasn’t half as bad as listening to a radio show that Melvyn Bragg did a few years ago, when he laughably asserted that Turing invented the computer.