A 1956 encyclopaedia’s view on the computer

Two weeks ago, my grandmother passed away – the last grandparent I had left. As those of you with experience in dealing with deceased family members know, the funeral is only the start; the next part is taking care of the deceased’s affairs, which includes going through all their belongings to determine what to do with them. I took care of my grandmother’s extensive book collection, and while doing so, I hit something that fascinated me to no end: a six-volume Christian Encyclopaedia from 1956. In it, I found something I just had to share with OSNews.

Like most people my grandmother’s age – she almost hit 90 – she was very religious, but she never got stuck in her ways. She always went with the times, and disliked imposing her religion on others. Despite her age, and her extensive participation in what is generally seen as a rather orthodox church (the Reformed Church of The Netherlands) she believed that if god indeed created everything, he must love everyone equally – no matter your history, colour, sexual orientation, whatever. This is a pretty progressive position to take for a church like that.

As I was going through her books, I discovered this six-volume set of books, titled ‘Christian Encyclopaedia’, from 1956. Considering its title and year of publication, my prejudice took over and I assumed it’d just be lots of talk about Christianity’s history, with science taking a back seat as soon as it contradicted with religion.

I looked up “Evolution”, and to my surprise, I was completely and utterly wrong – the topic was described in great scientific detail, explaining how evolution works, who contributed to the subject, and some of the aspects of it that still required further study because scientists didn’t yet understand them fully (we’re talking 1956, after all). No dogmas, no ridicule, no disparaging words or other forms of negativity. In fact, it could’ve come from any strictly secular science book and it’d be perfectly acceptable.

My grandmother, teaching me a lesson about prejudice, even from beyond the grave.

Consider it a test, if you will, but the encyclopaedia passed it with flying colours. Because of it, I quickly realised that with a bit of luck, this encyclopaedia could provide an intriguing insight into the very, very early days of computing, and how the scientific community of the day viewed this then-nascent industry. My father (it was his mother who passed away) remembered how he used to browse through this encyclopaedia for hours on end, and told me that if I wanted to have it, I could keep it. I didn’t have to ponder that.

I took the six, incredibly heavy volumes home, dusted them off, and started looking for an entry on computing. I first decided to try “computer”, but didn’t find anything – not a surprise, considering we’re talking the Dutch ’50s, but since the prologue actually uses the term “up-to-date” in English (!), I thought I may be lucky. I decided that the best way to go about this was to look up entries starting with “reken-” (“rekenen” means “to calculate”). We call a calculator a “rekenmachine”, or “calculation machine” (we use calculator, too, sometimes).

And I got lucky: an entry called “rekenautomaat”, or “calculation automaton”, which, according to the author of the entry, is also sometimes called a “computer”. Reading through the entry, I realised I hit the jackpot. More than a page of ’50s insight into computing – absolutely priceless. The entry is written by prof. dr. ir. H. van Riesen (1911-2000), someone who “is seen as a pioneer in the field of philosophy of technology from a Reformed viewpoint” (reformed as in, the Reformed Church).

Diving into the entry itself, it notes that computers are already in use in telephone systems, and are being used more and more in production. The key element of a computer, it states, is that “a certain action should always produce the same outcome; i.o.w., that between this action and the effect, human intervention is not necessary. […] Thus, the command defines the end result.”

After a short history of the computer, including the transition from mechanical to electric processes, the entry explains the kinds of tasks a computer is good at, mostly related to crunching calculations in mere seconds that would take humans more than a lifetime to crack, making computers useful in areas like nuclear science, meteorology, and so on. It also gives a few very specific examples:

The “Univac” processed 12 billion data points of the United Stated 1950 census. The computer is now indispensable for swiftly finding criminals within the card system of the United States police, using only a few data points. The “Eniac” performs one million multiplications of 2 ten-digit numbers per hour. In two minutes, it solves a problem which would take a mathematician his entire life. The human mind is barely able to solve a set of equations with 12 unknowns; a computer solves a set of of equations with 150 unknowns in a fraction of a second.

The item then moves on to describe two goals the computer industry is currently working towards – the bleeding edge fields of the day, if you will. Of the two goals, computer scientists have achieved one, but the other remains highly elusive to this very day, and most likely will remain so for a long time to come. Interestingly enough, Van Riesen accurately predicts this very outcome. Can you guess which two they are?

It’s chess and human language. Van Riesen uses these two to illustrate the kinds of tasks a computer is good at, and which it is not particularly suited for. Chess is a game of a finite number of moves, and only one of those moves will yield the most favourable outcome. A computer can calculate this, and should be able to come up with the best possible move. However, Van Riesen notes, the number of possible outcomes is so vast, that “the chess computer able to consistently beat the best human player in the world in still far beyond our reach”. Fourty years later, IBM’s Deep Blue and Deeper Blue would beat Kasparov.

Human language, on the other hand, has an infinite number of “nuances”, and as such, a “translation computer will never be able to give a sufficiently satisfying solution”. Since I make my living translating texts, I can certainly attest to this very fact. I appreciate the obvious issue of me not wanting to endanger my own profession, but as nice as e.g. Google Translate may seem, the translations it produces are absolutely horrifying, and can, in no way, be used in any serious capacity (hence, my disdain for news sites linking to Google Translate translated news articles).

A specific section is dedicated to memory. According to Van Riesen, a computer has an enormous amount of memory, which, unlike human memory, does not contain any errors. “The ‘Mark III‘ has 4000 memory units, which can each remember a 16-digit number. As one feeds such a ‘memory’, it would appear as if the computer is becoming ‘smarter’,” Van Riesen explains.

Before moving on to the implications and the future of the computer, we get to the meat of the matter: how does a computer actually work? The process as a whole is considered “complicated”, but the underlying principle is “simple”. It’s just a collection of switches, which can each hold one of two positions, and by chaining these together, you can increase “the number of possibilities of two”.

For us, this is all basic stuff, something we intuitively understand without having to think too much about it. However, imagine what computers represented for people in the ’50s; they just got out of a world war, and were in the middle of rebuilding the country. Virtually nobody knew what a computer was, let alone that they had even seen one. The idea of vacuum tubes, base-2 number systems and electronic memory were completely and utterly new and alien. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for my dad – 6 years old in 1956 – to read about this esoteric subject matter.

What struck me most about the entry was Van Riesen’s philosophical approach to the matter, which is remarkably prescient of the challenges we, as the human race, face with how to deal with the computer, the internet, and how they have tipped the balance of power back in favour of the people instead of the elite. In 1956, Van Riesen wrote this:

If the computer were to end up and remain in the hands of a small elite, e.g. of a dictator, [the computer’s] power will make the common man powerless and utterly submissive. And this tyranny will be introduced under the guise of the advancement of human well-being.

It’s not particularly difficult to see how this very concern is still very much relevant today. The power that the internet – granted, not a singular computer, but a set of computers – has given to the people is absolutely astonishing. However, we currently live in a time where politicians the world over are trying everything they can to gain control over the web, all under the false pretence of stopping crime or “think of the children”. Similarly, we’re currently in the middle of the war on general-purpose computing, where companies are trying to prevent us from gaining full ownership and control over our computers – all under the guise of “but it’s safer”.

Sadly, Van Riesen passed away in 2000, but had he still been alive, I would have tried to get into contact with him. I would have loved to have been able to share thoughts about the world of computing then, and now, and if he still thinks about the worries he penned down over 50 years ago.

For me, this Christian Encyclopaedia, as well as this article here on OSNews, will be my way of remembering and honouring the legacy of my grandparents. Their respect, tolerance, and open mind towards people who were different from them is something that has clearly left an imprint on the rest of the family – my father and my brothers and I included. As my initial prejudice towards this Christian Encyclpaedia demonstrates, I still have a long way to go.


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