Friday, March 28, 2008

The Pursuit of Perfection

Can you imagine the excitement of the first round of computer programmers in the 40s? How they realized that they could do things with the computer that would change the world? Programming one of the new Zuse or ENIAC machines to run calculations that were finished in a fraction of the time of human mathematicians, expanding that programming to make decisions, track information. It must have been a heady time for those scientists.

As computer programming got more complex (early versions of the ENIAC were reprogrammed"by actually re-wiring) , it also became abundantly clear that this new "programming" thing was going to open up vistas of opportunity.

We might be working in an object-oriented word, writing java code and perl and ASP and .net now, and making computers do things that these early pioneers couldn't even conceive of. But there are some things that we still struggle with:
"As soon as we started programming, we found out to our surprise that it wasn't as easy to get programs right as we had thought. Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs."
-Maurice Wilkes, 1949
The more things change, the more they stay the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The Story" interview program on NPR featured an interview with one of the women who programmed the ENIAC. In those days it was "women's work", and the job description was "computers" - these women computed things.

The grandson of this woman brought a photo very similar to, if not the very photo you show, to math class in junior high. It showed his grandma. He got suspended for lying.

The part of the interview I enjoyed the most was her description of the day the bigwigs first came to see a demonstration. The engineers had finished their work, and now they needed it programmed. She and her (female) colleague worked long hours to get it right. They were very nervous, but yet confident. IT WORKED! JUST AS ADVERTISED!! So the men went out to a celebratory dinner, and the women went home.