When Your Kids Ask You What A Computer Is, Take Them To Melbourne.

In much the same way that watching Game of Thrones on your 6-bit flatscreen isn’t the same as attending a theatre production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, using an iPad is in no way, shape, or form using a computer.

A computer is a digital, programmable device that you can give instructions to and from which you can be given a predictable, if currently unknown, response. An iPad is a TV with an impressive number of stations. One opens the doors to production and progress, one opens the doors to distraction and dilettantism. One asks you to toil, tinker, and test; the other to finger, swipe, and rest. One is for work, one is for pleasure. One is for smart people, one is for, well, I think you’re starting to get the idea.

Namely, your kids have no idea what the fuck it’s like to see Shakespeare well done, or even poorly done, merely imitated in the all too modern meta fashion.i Thankfully, the theatre is alive and well, even if the one of the only remaining things we can reasonably call “a computer” is relegated to a museum in the second-largest city of island nation in the South Pacific, somewhere in the basement between the carpark and the barely used auditorium.

I’m refering of course to CSIRAC, the only intact first-generation computer on the planet. The fourth stored-program electronic computer on Earth, CSIRAC was Australia’s first such machine and is currently housed at the Melbourne Museum. Used for calculations relating to building design, weather forecasts, psychological research, loan repayments and electricity supply, it was operational from 1949-1965.

CSIRAC 1
Beautiful, isn’t she, but how does CSIRAC stack up with more modern equipment ?

CSIRAC 3

But whereas that more modern equipment is as tightly sealed as a nun’s butthole and as unlikely to be disease-free as a trackmarked skank, CSIRAC was as transparent as the desert sky and as wrenchable as a ’49 Ford, if also as persnickety as a 2-year-oldii and as intellectually demanding as Maimonides.

This was CSIRAC’s layout:

CSIRAC 4

And this was the source of so much of her finickiness, her mercury delay lines, which acted as her temporary memory in much the way that RAM does. At temperatures over 40ºC, the old girl’s mercury boiled so hot that she was unusable and had to be turned off until cooler temperatures returned.iii

CSIRAC 2

All of which brings us back to Bitcoin, which shares the exact same explosive potential as those early computers. While CSIRAC boasted an impressive 90% uptime, Bitcoin, even with the flattening hashrate and unreliable ASIC farms, has been rocking for 6 years strong with effectively 100% uptime.

It’s not 1949 anymore, but if Bitcoin is too intangible for your kids, take them to Melbourne to see Shakespeare in the flesh.

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  1. How is Game of Thrones “meta” ? In much the same way that almost every contemporary production is: magic. Whether this is breaking the fourth wall à la House of Cards or using spells and dragons and amulets and shit, the icing sugar is layered on so thick that it’s hard to believe that anyone knows how to bake a simple cake anymore. Even the upcoming Marco Polo series for Netflix, claimed to be the most expensive 10-part TV show in the history of mankind at $90 mn (what bezzle?), looks as if it’ll be littered with whispy Eastern mysticism, completely poisoning what would otherwise be a very interesting story. []
  2. From computer technician Peter Thorne:

    The vacuum tubes were relatively unreliable. We did have the problem that little metal particles would get between the electrodes and short them out. So the technique developed was to use Frank Hirst’s valve tester, which was a big rubber stopper on the end of a stick – Frank’s famous ‘rubber donger.’

    You would run a diagnostic tape that was checking the computer, then open the cabinet doors and walk down behind the cabinets and go ‘bong, bong…’ Sooner or later you would hit a valve and the program would stop, so you would then start the program again, hit the valve again, and if it stopped again, you would conclude that this was a suspect valve. So you would take that one out and put in a new one. There was also a standard valve tester: you would plug a valve into it if you had any doubt about its integrity. []

  3. From maintenance engineer Jurik Semkiw:

    CSIRAC’s primary memory store consisted of acoustic delay lines – metal tubes, filled with mercury. The mercury would somehow become contaminated… the crystal in the transducers would become coated with oxides. When lines became inoperative, the contaminated mercury was emptied out of the line and refilled with triple-distilled mercury. []

3 thoughts on “When Your Kids Ask You What A Computer Is, Take Them To Melbourne.

  1. […] now to Melbourne, the home of old skool computing and the country’s second-largest city with about 4 mn residents, we find a highly unusual way […]

  2. […] a minute, what does confectionary history have to do with business ? This is like saying that computing history has something to do with astrology or that raising rabbits has something to do with furniture […]

  3. […] really “computing” if the user isn’t in control of the device, but whaddya want, a CSIRAC […]

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