From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
The entire Internet, as well
as the types of devices represented by the desktop computer, the laptop
computer, the iPhone, the iPod, and the iPad, are a continuing inescapable
embarrassment to science fiction, and an object lesson in the fallibility of
genre writers and their vaunted predictive abilities. (Yes, yes, we all know
that "SF is not about predicting things." But have you ever seen any
writer turn down credit when they do hit the fortune-telling bullseye?)
a single story in the genre prior to, oh, say, 1970, exhibited an accurate
handle on computers. As a rule, there were no far-sighted, speculative
depictions of the devices' miniaturization, ubiquity, influence, and utility
that would prefigure the landscape of 2010 as we know it. Oh, sure, you can
point to a few isolated instances of authors writing on the digital cutting
edge. One example that is trotted out regularly, like a token Cassandra-accurate
economist amidst boom-inflating hedge fund managers, is Murray Leinster and his
story, "A Logic Named Joe," from 1946:
got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it's
got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It's
hooked in to the tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays.
Say you punch "Station SNAFU" on your logic. Relays in the tank take
over an' whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin' comes on your logic's
screen. Or you punch "Sally Hancock's Phone" an' the screen blinks
an' sputters an' you're hooked up with the logic in her house an' if somebody
answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for
the weather forecast or who won today's race at Hialeah or who was mistress of
the White House durin' Garfield's administration or what is PDQ and R sellin'
for today, that comes on the screen too. The relays in the tank do it. The tank
is a big buildin' full of all the facts in creation an' all the recorded
telecasts that ever was made -- an' it's hooked in with all the other tanks all
over the country -- an' everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it
an' you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, an' keeps books,
an' acts as consultin' chemist, physicist, astronomer, an' tea-leaf reader,
with a "Advice to the Lovelorn" thrown in.
for every Leinster there were a thousand other writers with their heads buried
in the sand, such as the otherwise on-target Robert Heinlein, and his character
Andrew Jackson "Slipstick" Libby, famed mathematical genius who
helped pilot starships -- with his slide rule!
was not until the appearance of cyberpunk in the 1980s that SF began to grapple
in a broadly meaningful way with the reality of computers as something other
than giant mainframes tended by crewcut IBM nerds. But the irony -- and the point
of the aforementioned lesson -- is that the information about the potential
paradigm-shattering role that computers might play in society was extant as
early as the late 1930s, coincident with the birthpangs of actual computers.
Admittedly, it wasn't headline
material in the daily newspapers. But any SF writer of that era -- and of
subsequent decades -- with the willingness to dig into the scientific and
industrial and military journals would have found a rich vein of extrapolative
material that would have allowed a more sharp-eyed assessment of where
computers might be heading. While there were indeed secrets involved in early
computer technology that would not emerge for decades, the suggestive,
extendable mainline of the technological arc was there for the winkling-out. Had
SF authors of the period been inclined to investigate, the whole course of the
genre would have been altered. But, just as today, commercial regurgitation of
received ideas trumped pioneering ideation based on hard facts.
exactly were the public details surrounding the invention of the modern
computer? Thanks to author Jane Smiley, best known for such literary excursions
as her Pulitzer-winning novel A Thousand Acres, we can now get a
comprehensive overview of that exciting period through her newest book, The
Man Who Invented the Computer. She follows the John
McPhee-perfected recipe for historical journalism nicely and with élan: take an abstruse subject, research it
deeply, then humanize it tenderly, adding off-kilter insights and sharp
portraits of the curious folks involved.
book is subtitled "The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital
Pioneer." And while the named
subject does indeed occupy center stage, the narrative covers so much more
ground than one man's life, from the early years of the twentieth century
(Atanasoff's youth) up to a pivotal court decision in 1973. As Smiley says in
her introduction, the book is like four movies playing simultaneously.
come the character portrait and career outline of Atanasoff, a cornfed Edison
of sorts. It's a tale out of Sinclair Lewis, as if replayed by Hugo Gernsback. We
see the forces that shaped young Atanasoff, his remarkable epiphany in 1937
that led to the construction of the first workable, practical electronic
computer. We follow his retreat from the field, his long hegira in other realms
of expertise, and his eventual return in the 1960s to claim his proper credit.
second narrative is a fairly well-known one, involving Alan Turing, the
superstar of the field. Smiley, nodding to the familiarity of Turing's life,
gives him just enough coverage to place him in context. Here we have something
out of Eric Ambler or John Buchan. But the third strand is definitely the
weirdest. It's the saga of Konrad Zuse, an isolated, eccentric German trying to
invent a computer out of junk parts prior to and during WWII. This bit reminds
me of Gravity's Rainbow, and I kept waiting for
Tyrone Slothrop to appear around every bend of the subplot.
we get what might be termed the "institutional/big business" side of
the tale. Inventors Mauchly and Eckert, having ripped off Atanasoff, produce
ENIAC and other computing machines, with the help of the military,
corporations, and famous scientists such as John von Neumann, opening the
floodgates for a million digital flowers to bloom, until a major trial in the
late 1960s restores Atanasoff's honor and precedence. This segment might have
been authored by Norman Mailer handing off to John Grisham.
Smiley blends all these
convergent and parallel narratives into a superb whole, as fetching and
gripping as any novel. She displays an unwavering, cogent grasp of all the
technical details, a keen eye for historical forces, and much psychological
insight; her prose is a model of smooth transparency. Anyone who wants to
understand the roots of our twenty-first century digital culture needs to read
if science fiction's track record for predicting the computer's path to world
domination is a poor one, that doesn't mean the genre isn't catching on. To see
how computers are being portrayed in near-future scenarios, it's worth having a
look at Robert Sawyer's WWW: Watch, a sequel to WWW: Wake.
earlier book introduced us to teenaged heroine Caitlin Decter, whose blindness
is being treated by an experimental new technology that inadvertently puts her
in communication with the rudimentary but evolving intelligence bootstrapping
itself out of the worldwide web. She dubs it Webmind, and a strange friendship
notion of an autonomous cybermind arising spontaneously as an emergent property
of complexly networked systems is hardly new. Perhaps the first full
instantiation of the trope occurred in Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh
Mistress (thereby restoring to the
Grand Master some of the speculative street cred he lost with
"Slipstick" Libby). Curiously enough, the same year we got the
Heinlien novel, we also received D. F. Jones's Colossus, which employed the same
concept. After that watershed the trope was firmly in place, surfacing at
regular intervals, with one other notable early instance being David Gerrold's When HARLIE Was One. Nowadays, when such a
concept is invoked, it's usually tied to the notion of the
"Singularity" (the postulated moment when the distinction between
human and machine minds will vanish) and posthumanism, a route Sawyer seems
disinclined to follow, hewing to more old-fashioned developments.
has never been a flashy or far-out writer. No transcendent leaps or gonzo
forays into SF surrealism for him. His preferred mode is methodical,
step-by-step unfolding of a solid idea, with verisimilitude given a priority. Consequently,
much of the first two volumes of this projected trilogy will strike more
seasoned readers of the genre as highly familiar and unadventurous. I suspect
that even those whose acquaintance with SF is limited to first-generation Star
Trek reruns will not have their minds blown.
But on the other hand,
Sawyer's cautious, slow approach, homely details, and plain-spoken prose
succeed in creating an introductory-level text that has the virtue of making
the whole concept of machine intelligence seem highly probable and
comprehensible. Writing alternate passages in the voice of Webmind, Sawyer
crafts a sincere portrait of non-human intelligence and perceptions, developing
alongside his likeable human human characters. Caitlin and Webmind mature and
evolve in parallel, illustrating both the differences and consanguinity of the
two classes of intelligence and self, organic and electronic.
book is low on action sequences. A bit of thriller-style suspense comes from
the presence of WATCH, a government agency charged with monitoring suspicious
doings on the Internet. They naturally become aware of Webmind, with
predictable hostile reactions. But the conflict embodied in their response is
outweighed by the discursiveness of the rest of the story. In true Asimovian
fashion, the play of ideas as they emerge in rational conversation forms the
real excitement for Sawyer. The reader will exit this novel feeling that the
computer -- a gadget so fortuitously and aleatorily invented, as Smiley shows
us -- was somehow predestined to emerge as mankind's true companion.
Read an Excerpt
John Vincent Atanasoff's father, Ivan, was born in 1876, in the midst of a period of climaxing political unrest. His parents were landed peasants in the Bulgarian village of Boyadzhik (about eighty miles from the Black Sea and perhaps halfway between Istanbul and Sofia). The Ottoman Empire was breaking upSerbia had won independence in 1830 and Greece in 1832. Revolutionary agitation in Bulgaria, which intensified in the 1870s, culminated in the April Uprising of 1876, in which bands of Christian resistance fighters attacked Ottoman government offices and police enclaves. The attacks were followed by a campaign of reprisal on the part of the Ottoman government. Ivan's father, Atanas, and his mother, Yana, were forced to flee their village, Atanas carrying the baby Ivan in his arms. In the course of the melee, Yana was knocked unconscious and Atanas was shot in the back. The bullet killed Atanas and creased the baby's scalp as it exited through his father's chest, but Ivan and Yana survived (though American translator Eugene Schuyler estimated from his own observations at the time that fifteen thousand Bulgarians were killed, and five monasteries and fifty-eight villagesincluding Boyadzhikwere destroyed in these attacks). The revolution was put down for the time being and the Ottoman response was widely publicized and deplored, and then in mid-1877, Russia attacked the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans with the express purpose of liberating the Balkan Christian states and regaining access to the Black Sea that Russia had lost in the Crimean War. The conflict was shortthe autonomy of Bulgaria was recognized in the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878. Among the Russian cheerleaders for the war were Ivan Turgenev, who thought Bulgaria should be liberated, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who hoped to unite all Eastern Orthodox churches under the Russian church.
Yana subsequently married a local cattle breeder who could afford to educate little Ivan, while her brother made contact with American missionaries, who helped him get to America. When this uncle returned on a visit to Bulgaria in the late 1880s, young Ivan, now thirteen, decided to go back to America with him. Yana financed the trip by selling a piece of land that Atanas had left her.
At Ellis Island, Ivan Atanasov's name was changed to John Atanasoff. Although he had a bit of money, it was only enough to rent a room in New York City so that he could work at a series of menial restaurant and handyman jobs while he improved his English. Life was difficult and jobs were scarce, though he did manage to keep a chicken in his room for a while. A charitable local minister he met through his uncle found him a place as a student at the prestigious Peddie School, in Hightstown, New Jersey (not far from Princeton), where he worked hard and did well, but upon graduation, his education at first seemed to be of little usehis uncle had returned to Bulgaria, and there were no more family funds forthcoming. He was homeless for a while, working temporary jobs, but then he related his tale to a Baptist minister named Cooke, who encouraged him to seek the aid of various local congregations. Once he had accumulated $200 in savings and gifts, Pastor Cooke helped him find a spot at Colgate, at that time a Baptist-affiliated college.
At Colgate, John met the sister of two brothers who were fellow students, a girl named Iva Purdy, a descendant of early settlers in Connecticut and generations of farmers in upstate New York. Iva, herself a high school graduate with a talent for mathematics, was teaching in a nearby school. After courting Iva, John married her at Christmas 1900 and then graduated from Colgate the following June. John Vincent was born on October 4, 1903.
Although John had taken his degree in philosophy, he found work in industrial engineering at the Edison power plant in Orange, New Jersey. When work at the plant (possibly chemicals used in the manufacture of lightbulbs) seemed to be adversely affecting his health, he moved on to the power plant in Utica, New York, then to the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad electrical plant in Hoboken, New Jersey. At night, he took correspondence courses in electrical engineering. Four children had been born by the time John Vincent was ninetwo who lived and two who died in infancy. John and Iva came to feel that the family was not thriving because, in addition to John's own respiratory problems, the children were suffering repeated bouts of illness. They decided to move to the newly founded town of Brewster, Florida, on the west coast, some thirty miles as the crow flies southeast of Tampa, where American Cyanamid was in the process of exploiting local phosphate deposits. John got a good job, and the children's health improved. John Vincent attended school at the local two-room schoolhouse.
Iva Atanasoff gave her oldest child considerable freedom, both of action and of thought, in part because other children were born in Florida (eventually there were seven) and she oversaw a large garden in addition to the household. But Iva also retained her interest in intellectual pursuitsaccording to family stories, she liked to sit in her rocking chair and read while John and his younger brothers and sisters played about her. By the time young John got to school, he already knew how to read and calculate, and at first he was a difficult pupilhe was used to following his own agenda. Since he had no trouble doing his work, he finished ahead of the other children, and once he had done so, he made himself a "pest," according to his younger sister. But he was an inconvenient pupil also because he was inquisitive and knew more than many of his teachers. He was easily offended, especially by teasing and slurs, and he didn't mind getting into fights. Some teachers handled him well and some did not, but however they handled him, his pronounced eagerness to learn persistedhe eagerly explored both the countryside and whatever books he could get hold of.
In 1913, when he was not quite ten, John helped his father wire their home for electricity (subsequently, they wired the homes of some of their neighbors, too). In 1914, John mastered the owner's manual of his father's new Ford Model T, and at eleven he was driving it. John read his mother's books, including Ruskin and Spenser, and he read his father's booksincluding a manual on radiotelephony (wireless sound transmission). When his father ordered an up-to-date slide rule, then decided that he didn't really need it, John mastered it within a couple of weeks and thereupon became, in his own mind, a nascent mathematician. He found his father's old college algebra textbook and began to work his way through it. What he could not understand (differential calculus, infinite series, logarithms) Iva explained to him. During this period, he learned about various number systems other than the decimal systemthis unusual familiarity with nondecimal ways of counting and calculating and his practice using them was what would eventually distinguish his ideas about calculators from those of his contemporaries.
John liked to make things and to demonstrate his skillsin sixth grade, because some older girls who had already finished elementary school were gathering in the back of the classroom and crocheting, he learned to crochet. He pursued his project at school, no longer undaunted by teasing but stimulated by ithe flaunted his work and bragged about his skills until the teacher banned crocheting at school. He soon learned to sew. In fact, John Vincent Atanasoff seemed to see every new idea or object as an opportunity to explore and master whatever his world had to offer. Atanasoff's parents gave him plenty of freedom, encouraged his enterprise, and helped him pursue what he wanted to master. They also made a stable life for him in an out-of-the-way spot where there was plenty to do and plenty of space to do it in.
The Atanasoffs' life in Brewster was not untroubledthe Atanasoff family, with its strange name and alien ways, was sometimes harassed and their property vandalized. John Atanasoff encountered resentment at work. The larger culture seethed with prejudice and vigilantism. A local Catholic lawyer was run out of the area. Between 1909, when the Atanasoffs arrived in Brewster, and 1920, more than fifty black people were lynched in FloridaAtanasoff himself remembered witnessing a lynching as a teenager, in Mulberry (about eleven miles north of Brewster), though that one is not attested to in Ralph Ginzburg's 100 Years of Lynchings.
In 1912, John and Iva purchased a 155-acre farm southwest of Brewster, which included a 30-acre orange grove and 120 acres of timber. For young John, the farm meant more scope for exploration and, in particular, endless chances to not only repair the machinery used on the farm, but to take it apart and improve its design. The boy became interested in farming itselfhe subscribed to Wallaces' Farmer (the publication founded in Iowa by the grandfather of Vice President Henry A. Wallace) and tried the latest farming techniques. Since John Atanasoff worked full time, young John became the one who organized and ran the farm. In the meantime, he graduated from the high school in Mulberry, completing his coursework in two years, at fifteen. The teachers at the high school did not attempt to control Atanasoff's independence or restrict his educationthey encouraged his curiosity and his enterprise. Once he had graduated, Atanasoff got himself certified to teach math classes and saved the money he earned toward his college education, which he already knew would be in math and science. He worked for a year as a phosphate prospector and entered the University of Florida in 1921, just before his eighteenth birthday.
The University of Florida is and was a land-grant university. The Morrill Act of 1862, under which both the University of Florida and Iowa State College were founded, was written for a specific educational purpose: "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life." In other words, the land-grant colleges were intended to focus on the useful. In what is perhaps the paradigm of public higher education, the three state-funded colleges in Iowa are an example of this idea of the distinct (and class-based) purposes of higher education: postgraduate degrees are offered by the medical school, the art school, the music school, the graduate school, the law school, and the business school at the University of Iowa. Postgraduate degrees in engineering, agriculture, veterinary medicine, design, and industrial engineering are offered at Iowa State (though these categories have gotten somewhat less distinct in the last twenty-five years). The third state-funded school was, until 1961, Iowa State Teachers College, a normal school. Although the system of higher education was not as distinct in every state as it was in Iowa (the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota have all types of programs on the same campus), the land-grant colleges retained their focus on disciplines applicable to the health and wealth of the individual states. The Morrill Act promised to fund these colleges by granting each state thirty thousand acres of federal land, the proceeds of which would go to the colleges. The land did not have to be inside the stateNew York State was granted land in Wisconsin, for example.
The Morrill Act did not originally cover Florida, because the Confederate states had seceded from the Union before the passage of the act, but the act was extended in 1890 to the former Confederate states. Most of these states used money from the act to fund the useful arts at the main campus and to fund the establishment of separate, segregated black colleges. In 1905, Florida Agricultural College, in Lake City, was moved fifty miles south to Gainesville and renamed the University of the State of Florida. At the time of John Vincent Atanasoff's matriculation, the university was all male and all whitewomen students went to Florida Female College, in Tallahassee, and black students of both sexes went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, also in Tallahassee. Related to the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 was the Hatch Act of 1887, which funded (also through land grants) the establishment of agricultural experiment stations in each of the states. These stations were normally attached to the land-grant colleges, broadening their practical mandate.
By the time he began college, Atanasoff knew he wanted to study physics and to be a physicist. He was familiar with and excited by Einstein's theories and by the other work being done in the field, but no physics major was offered at the university, so he went into electrical engineering, the most theoretical scientific major offered. In Gainesville, Atanasoff was surrounded by opportunities to think, but also opportunities to do. Requirements of the electrical engineering major included building models and projects, so Atanasoff took classes in machine shop, forge and foundry, and electrical mechanics. He also pursued his earlier interest in radio communication. He tutored students for money and worked summersone summer in Jacksonville, he found a lucrative job surveying the city streets. He was, in short, brilliant, eager, enterprising, highly directed, and hardworking. Just as John Atanasoff's life had been almost a paradigm of the classic immigrant story, John Vincent Atanasoff's life was almost a paradigm of the classic ambitious American talea Tom Sawyer-like boyhood followed by a Horatio Alger-style self-funded and successful career.
But the elder Atanasoff's life remained difficultwhile John Vincent was away in Gainesville, John and Iva decided to sell the farm and move to Bradley Junction, a town between Brewster and Mulberry. One night when John was coming home, he was attacked by a mob clad in white robes and nearly killed. He was saved by the wife of the Cyanamid plant manager, who heard the ruckus and ran outside with a shotgun. The mob was revealed to be made up, in part, of neighbors whose children Iva tutored in math and, in part, men who worked for John at the plant, all apparently motivated by the strangeness of John's name and origins. The attackers broke John's leg and ribs, and there were so many internal injuries that John was bedridden for weeks; John Vincent had to return from college to help take care of him. Although the attack was foiled, the younger Atanasoff children suffered for years from the xenophobia, and probably the envy, of the local population.