Monthly Archive for February, 2011

Philadelphia’s secret computers

A documentary about the world’s first computers just arrived in the mail!  I’m excited to tell you about Top Secret Rosies, which was produced and directed by LeAnn Erickson and America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

Top Secret Rosies Trailer from LeAnn Erickson on Vimeo.

To set the stage speed dating style, two guys, Eckert and Mauchly met in 1941.  They later worked on a machine called the ENIAC which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the United States government during WWII.

This collaboration was much like the joint effort between Harvard University, IBM, and the US Navy that was behind Aiken’s Mark series of computers.  Aiken began his endeavour at Harvard in 1937. (photo: Mark I detail)

It was later, in the 1950’s, that  Kenneth E. Iverson went to work with Aiken at Harvard and came up with the ideas behind our APL Array Programmning Language family.

As with all human innovations, advances in computer technology developed concurrently.  Many breakthroughs were made in the United States, primarily driven by the “Try Anything” WWII war time attitude of the government.  (A catchy phase, coined by Erickson, in her film. You really should watch it!).

As it turns out, however, the real first computers were women who did ballistic calculations to support the war effort.  Erickson found four of them still living in the Philadelphia area, close to where she lives. 

Philadelphia!  That’s where IBM moved us in the 1970’s.

Erickson does a great job of drawing out the personal histories of these four woman as their careers unfold against the drama of WWII. As Erickson effectively points out, not only were these women the world’s first computers, but they were later recruited to work on the ENIAC, as the first computer programmers.  Not too many people remember that our field was actually started by women.

It’s not difficult to draw an analogy between Erickson’s WWII story line and the APL Array Programming Language connection with the rise of international financial markets, and of course, the drama of subsequent market crashes.  I’ll be studying this excellent film very closely.

By the way, I gleaned dates and my attitude toward first computers from The first Computers: History And Architecture

AND YOU CAN See the Film in Philadelphia!

Date/Time: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 – 6:30pm
Temple Performing Arts Center (formerly known as the Baptist Temple)
1837 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia PA
The event is free and open to the public but ticket reservations are required.
To make free reservations, call (215)204-8660 or email

Date/Time: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 – 7:30pm
Bryn Mawr Film Institute
824 W. Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr PA, 610.527.9898
The event is free and open to the public. Tickets will be available at the door.


Give me a break Big Blue!

I am so disappointed with Big Blue’s new 100×100 “film” that I can’t even bear to reference it here.   My first thought was to drone on about their marketing gimmicks, i.e. repeating their brand name 100 times in the guise of a “film”; let’s face it, historically APL folks have given marketing relatively little attention.  Maybe there is something to be learned here, however that would entail studying the damn thing when I barely made it through the first time.  BORING.  No thanks.  There’s a whole new wave of intelligent thoughtful people coming of age who aren’t going to fall for such unadulterated propaganda.  Yes,  THINK, indeed. Even commercials need to be more fun.

Rather than dwell on the negative, I decided to take this opportunity to remind everyone where the idea most probably originated.  You see, back in 2008  Richard P. Gabriel and Guy L. Steele made a wonderful piece about programming languages for the JAOO developers conference called 50 in 50. JAOO is an acronym that stands for “Java and Object Orientation” which is a really just a code word for a programming language family that was hot for a while, let’s say the last decade or two, but seems to be losing some of its Utopian shine recently.  Mr Gabriel and Mr. Steele are extremely well respected in the field of Computer Science.

Oh… pst… APL is featured in it!

I think some real thinking went into this thoughtful piece.  Enjoy.

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