Last week I participated in a reception to celebrate Harvard’s newly redesigned Mark I exhibit in the Science Center. If you don’t know about this machine or its history, you can learn more here. Today’s blog post presents my notes from yesterday remarks. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed giving them!
It’s a true delight to speak, for my academic passion is to understand and build machines that are the descendants of the Mark I. What has always fascinated me is how we can take a very simple building block – we effectively start with something no more complex than an on/off switch – and from this simplicity build machines of great complexity.
Now, just because we can build something complex, and even get it to run for a short time, you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking you can keep it running or get it to do what you hoped it would do. The way you get one of these behemoths to run is to think about how it can fail.
Failure. The Mark I and its successors are probably best known for the story of the “first actual case of bug being found.” The engineering community had used the term “bug” before the creation of these machines, but on Sept. 9, 1947 a mechanical malfunction in the Mark II was traced to a moth – a real bug – trapped between the points of Relay #70 in Panel F. The story lit the imagination of people outside of the engineering community and was one of Grace Murray Hopper’s favorite stories when she spoke about her life.
I like to think of this as the first big impact of computer technology on our larger society. The eventual size of this impact was certainly unforeseen at the time.
Some of you may have heard the early 1940s quote, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers,” attributed to Thomas J. Watson, Sr., who launched IBM. Historians aren’t convinced he actually said this exact quote, but there is plenty of evidence that he and numerous other leaders and forward-thinkers in the early computer industry, including Howard Aiken, didn’t think that there’d be a large market for machines like the Mark I.
Grab a random undergraduate walking by and I can guarantee you that you’ll find a handful of computing devices in their pockets and backpack. I carry a computing device, a Fitbit, which is many times more powerful than this Mark I. Its important task? Count the steps I take in a day. What would Watson or Aiken have thought of that?
How do I use the computing power of my cell phone, a device that is constantly conversing with 10s, 100s, maybe even 1000s of machines throughout the day? To keep me happy with texts from my kids. Am I wrong? Who here doesn’t become instantly frustrated if the text you type doesn’t instantly go through?
The Mark I is a reminder to us that Harvard recognized early the importance of these machines and what they could calculate quickly. Unfortunately, a bug crept into our thinking, and we let leadership in this space slip away from us for a while.
Today, Harvard again has reengaged, and I believe taken a leadership role in this space. Our efforts are certainly rooted in SEAS and the technology, but they don’t end there. We are pursuing leadership in computation and its impacts in every one of our disciplines.
So, if we try to learn from the past, what’s the bug in our thinking today? What is our blind spot to avoid?
I don’t know, but I see one. I often hear us talking about the important resources underpinning our great university: Our finances, our facilities, and most importantly our people. But would you start with just these three if you were to build a university from scratch today? I don’t think so. I think that you would put as much thought into digital resources as you would in physical ones.
Today is a day to celebrate what we accomplished 70 years ago with the construction of the Mark I, and to reflect on what we learned about the impact of these machines on society over those 70 years. It is for us to apply those lessons as we approach the next 70, for Harvard, higher education, and the world. With our breadth of excellence, we are uniquely positioned to do this.