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Whirlwind

Von Neumann Explains Computers, 1946

Jon von Neumann

John von Neumann published the earliest and most influential discussions of how to build electronic digital computers. His earliest known publication on computer design was actually a draft report he created in June, 1945, that was widely distributed among the infant community of computer developers. 

On May 15, 1946, von Neumann gave a detailed talk about the general principles of computer design. He was addressing the US Navy's Mathematical Computing Advisory Panel, a group that oversaw the Navy's computing R&D progams. Like the earlier draft, this talk was quickly transcribed, mimeographed, and distributed. The resulting paper was titled "The Principles of Large-Scale Computing Machines."

My father was about to be discharged from the Navy as this was taking place. He had spent World War II working on classified electronics in Boston. The Navy offered him a civilian job overseeing computer research projects. Thus, a copy of von Neumann's "Principles" paper ended up in his archives. 

I have made a PDF copy of this paper and posted it here. This is a sort of companion to Whirlwind block diagrams I posted earlier. 

 

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Some Tech Lives Forever

The Whirlwind is my favorite first-generation computer. It is also the basis of SAGE, a nationwide air defense system built by IBM in the '50s. Nuclear missiles made SAGE obsolete pretty quickly. By the mid '60s, big chunks of the SAGE computers, affectionately called the AN/FSQ-7, started showing up in surplus.

These parts soon made cameo and even starring appearances in TV shows and movies. Mike Loewen has constructed a web site that tracks "sightings" of Q-7 parts in movies.

Q7 console - Computer History Museum

We've all seen them: those rows of blinkenlights installed at a slight angle and often rigged with pyrotechnics. They appeared in almost every science fiction TV show from the '60s, and many movies. Surprisingly, these ancient panels still show up occasionally. Most recently, panels appeared in the background of a Comcast ad.

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Whirlwind - an ancient computer

I first learned about computer architecture back in the 1970s. Much of what I learned came from a set of  block diagrams for the old Whirlwind computer built at MIT.  A few years back I had the document scanned in.

Whirlwind

Yes, it's built out of vacuum tubes. But it is also the complete design of a stored program digital computer in about 200 pages.

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Thumbs Down: Another Top Ten Computer List

A site called "Live Science" has posted a "Top 10 Revolutionary Computers." This was obviously written by someone who doesn't know a lot about what makes a computer significant, beyond advertising.

The TRS-80 (aka the Trash 80)? The latest IBM parallel monster? Give me a break. These were all reruns of well-understood concepts. Nothing new. They listed the Alto, so why list the Macintosh?

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