Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Technical Appendix That is a Bleg for a Water-Cooled Slide Rule And Better Cashiers

Edit: Material completely not relevant to post, as opposed to comments, way down at the bottom.

I had not intended to do a technical appendix this week; but looking at my work schedule, I'm not sure I want to rush into August I

Besides, losing a day's work in a second failed autsave fiasco in two weeks leaves me with a backlog of images to inflict on you.

You've seen this one:

Horace, the Tame Stressman, is my hero. Look, a nerd before their time! Shackleton is also burying the lede here, because Horace is blowing smoke rings (although he describes them as "stationary vortices," which is hilarious if you've read too many first-half-of-the-last-century aerodynamics papers than any sane man should), and you know who else blows smoke rings?

Sure, the joke has been revised for our times. (Heh, heh, he said "revised.") But I like to think  that we're actually tapping into the mind of 1945 here. Horace is a wizard, but he does it with a slide rule, and not magic. Not that Gandalf does much magic, either, fabulous smoke rings apart.

Also, I'm posting enough multimedia to push this down far enough that it won't jigger up the front page. 

Speaking of culture, there's a lot to be learned about a British "engineering industry" work culture from the old Desoutter ads. First, forget the mustache. It's just a running gag. (Ordinarily, thirteen year-old boys don't normally have handlebar mustaches. Come on, it's funny!) 

"Our oldest employee" neither likes, nor is afraid of his boss. He's immovable, though, because he knows what he's doing, "not good enoughs" notwithstanding. He's been training thirteen year-olds for years, gruffly, but probably not badly. Those thirteen year-olds go on to make patterns and jogs. amongst other things. There's no implications that they do designs on drafting boards --I might be old enough to have to explain with tongue out of cheek that the academic-looking fellow in the bow tie is holding a drafting tool for producing right angles called a T-square under his arm, so that, in spite of his other-worldly, English-professor mien, we can take if for granted that he's a good technical drawer. This is harder than it looks, especially if you've a less-than-average endowment of manual dexterity, and your instructor will probably prefer to work on the basis of a course in Euclidean geometry, but it is not really necessary. 

Just stop here for a second and wrap your mind around a time when good illustration skills are complementary and substitutable for math. Horace, and our grumpy, mustachioed old toolmaker are interchangeable on the Hawker Hart. 

Yet the times are a-changin'. The toolmakers aren't going away, but Horace is coming up. Desoutter needs a "water cooled slide rule" now. That much is conventional history. What we too rarely ask is to what extent it needs it because it's too much work to do all the drawings. 

This is such a weird place to find an explanation of the technology as to almost be a historical fact in its own right. This girl is obviously wicked smart. Her grandchild is in university, and good on her. It's selfish of me to admit that I'd prefer her behind a cash register because it would make my life easier, but what if that's a better place for her than university? Curse society if you will, but making money now instead of building up loans to be paid off doing the same work in the future does not make sense.
That's not my point, though. I didn't even put it into the lost version of July, II. This is the important lost image:
I've already misplaced the page from which I scraped this image, but no-one's got a monopoly on it except The Atlantic, where it first appeared in "As We May Think," a July 1945 article by Vannevar Bush,.

The image comes from a July 1945 article in The Atlantic. Vannevar Bush, already in the news that month for publishing his manifesto for the Educational Complex State, is . . . I am going to go with, frustrated.

Cast your mind back and back, to the day when the oldest library building at your alma mater was built. The fine old University Gothic structure might even still exist! (Climbing-wall-lazy-river-hurr-hurr-these-kids/administrators-today.) When it was erected, books were bought from publishers and arrived with a nice description. A tweedy librarian took that description, or, perhaps, the wordy subttitle or even the long chapter headings, and produced a series of cards showing the key bibliographic information, a short description, and some additional cross-references, a first level of cross-references being already implied by the "Author-Title-Subject" headers of the cards, which made it possible to find the book by its call number by alphaetic search through any of the three headers. Then, all the cards were put into their separate cabinets, so that the researcher could find the book by title, etc. 

This being bulky, and there being a demand for multiple instances of the catalogue around campus, the cards began to be microfilmed. Perhaps in the war era? Someone will know. One of the interesting facts about this is that the microfilming work had not been completed, at either the University of British Columbia or the University of Toronto, when computerised catalogues began, so that at least some special-purpose catalogues were still around into the 90s. People like Vannevar Bush would have been pleased by this, because the short summaries on (some of) the cards were wonderful and irreplaceable. They just didn't do that sort of thing nowadays, with any time between the Forties and today standing in for "nowadays."

There were a lot of  underemployed academic types running around in the Twenties, is what I'm saying. 

So what Vannevar wants is something like the immersive experience of pursuing research leds in old card catalogues, only on microfilm, so universally accessible, but far more convenient than actual microfilm/fiche reading stations, which were a pain in the ass, and with lots of the research leads and "associative thinking" that you got in the best entries in the old card catalogues. Because he was Vannevar Bush, his idea got into The Atlantic, which, in attempting to explain why anyone should care, let it be known that this was about how to get "thinking machines." And because of that, Vannevar Bush's memex has been a meme for the last few years. Hey! Look! Way back in 1945, they were already trying to build work stations! With no computing in them! Weird, hunh?

So here, now, is an image that didn't get lost, so that I can't really justify reproducing it, even though that's exactly what I am going to do. 
Frankly, when I searched for Joseph Schillinger on Wikipedia, I expected some snark. Oh, sure, the Juillard School gave him the time of the day, but it was the 1945 silly season. As far as I understood it, the world of music was then, and still is, full up on cranks who try to use mathematics to compose music or to explain why some music is good. It's like building "colour organs," an evergreen dream that pretty clearly doesn't work. (Unlike the Smell-o-Vision, which is just around the corner.)

Instead, I got an article that compares Schillinger to Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, and the rhythmicon looks like a substantial piece of engineering, and is apparently some kind of companion piece to the theremin, and everybody knows about the theremin!

The article still reads like a Tesla puff-piece, though, and I'd really like to gesture in the direction of the other "designing music like planes" cranks who've got into the Music section of Time over the war years, although not enough to go back and reread the blog to find them. The takeway might be that there was sufficient demand for music composition in the New York of the Forties to support a demi-monde of tech entrepeneurs/affinity frauds like Schillinger.

Microfilm, drum machines, what's this got to do with Horace?

There's a story, somewhere in Fozard's festscrhift to Sidney Camm,(1) and probably in the depths of this blog, too, to the effect that when the Warren truss construction method that became the "patented Hawker method" was first proposed to the Air Ministry, in the deep past of 1927 or so, the air marshals were assured that when it came time, the squared-off steel girders would be reinforced with, oh, I don't know, extra rods or something.

It was left as an exercise to future generations (rather like the pagination and authorship of this anecdotte) to actually do the math, though. Or the "stressing," as they said in the day. (Which is why Horace is a "tame stressman.") When the Hurricane came along a few years later, the bills came due. Senior management at Kingston-upon-Thames then did what they had to do. They went out and bought some shiny new IT for the poor sods who would have to do the work: a circular slide rule. Then, other senior management did what they did best; appropriated the contraption for their work, and the Hurricane's frame was stressed the old-fashioned way, by young men (and by men we mean to include any women in the drawing office, because, after all, women who do that kind of work are secretly men, if you know what I mean, and all the real women are at home making babies.)

Sorry, sorry, brain in the mid-40s there for a second.

So I've now mentioned, in no particular order, because I don't think there is one,hand power tools (if you missed the connection, that's what Desoutter's made), photo developer-printers, the memex, the theramine, circular slide rules and typewriters, You will notice that this post is labelled as a "Blog Comment Follow Up." I don't comment at Crooked Timber, but I was awfully tempted by the recent John Quiggin post about War and Technological Progress. What raised my dander was some or the other awful commentator going on about how WWII wasn't such a big deal for the development of information technology because such or the other theorem about computability wasn't nailed down until 1955.  

I'm not going to go into that. My understanding of computability and Godel's Theorem and all of that goes back to Penrose, and I am embarrassed and ashamed. Besides, there's a whole Alan Turing industry now, being that he was such an odd fellow, and a victim of homophobic persecution in the bargain. I'm sure that the linked Wikipedia article is complete as all heck. It better! The University of Manchester gang at the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing have been memorialising Turing for years. Note that this also takes us back to Vannevar Bush, since it was at Manchester, just before the war, that Douglas Hartree built a Meccano version of Bush's differential analyzer. Meccano! Very Horacian. I am not going to pursue the story of the differential analyser here at any further length, because it's all in Wikipedia. This is the Main Line of computing history, or at least used to be, before Martin Campbell-Kelly, and, less successfully, John Agar: Babbage>Turing>Bush>Moore Summer School/von Neumann>ENIAC.

That this is a limited vision of the history of computing was made clear by Campbell-Kelly, who took the hardly revolutionary approach of focussing on IBM and revealing a prehistory of ever-more complicated punch-card sorters in a history of the computer as a "business machine." That's Campbell-Kelly and Agar, though. What strikes me is such an obvious digression from the "main line" that Wikipedia specifically instructs me not to think it. Turing worked on bombes, improved their concept into the Tunny, and gave Martin Flowers the idea (somehow) to build COLOSSUS to attack the German railway codes. COLOSSUS was then disassembled after the war and kept highly secret, presumably because it had Cold War successors of which Men Are Not Meant to Know.   

Dorothy Du Boisson and Elsie Booker work on COLOSSUS. Because they're womern, not Men. 
Then, in 1966, Dennis Feltham Jones published a science fiction thriller entitled Colossus. It was about how a computer was built to take control of the American nuclear arsenal, and promptly used it to Take Over the World. A reviewer described it as a compulsively readable treatmen of a hackneyed subject, there was a movie treatment, and copies of it and its two sequels made up a good tenth of the bulk of the used science fiction holdings of the bookstores of my boyhood. Not bad, although no Perry Rhodan. 

It is not that Jones, a WWII naval officer, blew the COLOSSUS secret. I have no idea whether he even knew about COLOSSUS. Probably not. The point is that by coming out six years before the first, unofficial revelation of the ENIGMA effort, he contributed the --I'm going to go with the solvent-- of an inchoate mix of fact, conjecture, and Boy's Own exaggeration about these World War II efforts. a weird brew of fact and fiction, colouring our world ever since. 

That milieu/worldview/imaginarium consisted of knowing, or "knowing" that there were computers back then, and they did ...stuff. Stuff that no-one but a mathematician could really hope to understand, but which had to do with codebreaking, and won World War II. Don't worry your pretty little head about it, because you can't hope to understand why the future is here. You should, however, consider taking computer science in school so that you don't become some useless, COLOSSUS-worshipping drone.

So that's one reason that I started with Vannevar Bush's meandering dream of a better library micro-catalogue. It is because he is in the news in the same month for his slightly meandering blueprint for the American Educational Complex State. I was brought up to believe that American didn't start to get Serious about science (if it ever did) until Sputnik. The tangible evidence of an aging inventory of the 1960 Physical Science Studies Committe physics textbook in the book basement of North Island Secondary School seemed proof enough for me as a teenager, and it is almost disappointing to discover that  the first steps to the textbook were taken in 1956. (And distinctly weird that the physics teacher who raved about it seems to have been distantly related to one of the editors. At least, Zacharias is not exactly a common last name.) 

I'm going to back up here and try to make explicit the connections I see. First, and most important, Bush's 1945 paper envisions the Memex as "thinking;" but he does not assign "computing" as one of its tasks, and he doesn't seem to have a hint of what "Turing completeness" might mean. He just wants to be able to follow up cross references without fighting with a microfiche machine --and, given that, it really seems like a small step to a machine that suggests cross-references. You know: "thinking." 

Well, back to  Mr. Schillinger, and his "descriptive rather than prescriptive" system for describing music in mathematical terms. (And "semantic," to draw in yet another post-war buzz-word.)  With all due respect to the fans of the "Schillinger system of music," I think that it's pretty clear that by the time we wander into choreography, never mind architecture, that Schillinger has left the "science" in "mathematics" far behind and is wandering in the direction of magic. 

The "drop the mike" moment here would be to call "thinking machines" the new magic and be done with it. But before I drop the mike, because being brief is not in my nature, one more novel invention of July 1945: the Wasserfall Ferngelenkte FlaRakete (Waterfall Remote-Controlled A-A Rocket):

"Wasserfall" is an anti-aircraft rocket based on the V2 design, only smaller. You will find it on Wikipedia, however, classed not as an anti-aircraft rocket in the tradition of the much unloved Unrotated Rocket, but in the Surface-to-Air Missile portal. Wassefall is deemed to be the ancestor of the anti-aircraft missile by virtue of the fact that it was guided --sort of. An operator with a joystick was supposed to play Missile Command with the world's biggest head's up display ("Reality.") Since seeing is hard at night, a radar integrated with a radio direction finder was under development for night use. 

What interests me here are two necessary components of this equipment which could easily go unremarked. The first and most obvious after a year of reading the correspondence pages of Flight is the practical difficulty of measuring the distance to a flying missile using some kind of beacon on the missile. That's a lot of acceleration stress that this little radio is being expected to endure! The second, implicit because the details are always so boring, is the lag dampening in the control. Although lag dampeners are usually physically understood in terms of weights on springs and pinholes in diaphragms, what they do is make a second-order differential equation of the form (bold for vectorial quantities and derivatives of time (t) in the form D, V, A understood, because I've gone my post undergraduate career without learning how to use a formula editor, and don't intend to make up before lunch today): A(t)=-kD(t) + CV(t), which is just the old simple harmonic motion equation messed up with a damping term. Tricky, since what is wanted is a damping terms strictly proportional to kD(t) to bring the system back to rest, and instead we have one which varies with a velocity term.

Butthere is no need to fiddle with the physics. It's all just math from the perspective of the designer. a system that recognises the oscillations and applies damping force in proportion to the oscillations until the damn system stops moving in the way it's not supposed to is not that hard to write as a mathematical expression. Get that? We've got a physical system that is written as a formula and then implemented as a design. Put in on a rocket so that it has to resist extremes of acceleration, and you are faced witha circuit board of welded connections that may fail under stress. So you ask a clever engineer to create a circuit board with no welded connections. Something that keeps the same state because it is solid.

So. I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that what Campbell-Kelly did for the IBM card counter, and Asper tried to do with things like microfiche catalogues, and Franklin Noble for numerically controlled machining, can be done for Bruning's "magic wand" instant printing technique. In fact, there's a case for turning the history of computing on its head. Instead of putting databases and music editing and desktop publishing back in, what happens if we kick computing out? The avionics-solid state connection provides a route to put the computing back into computing without "turing compatibility and "von Neumann architecture." Those just turn out to be gadgets to borrow to make for more efficient fuel injector control systems and which can deliver prettier graphics rendering. That's what people need, along with databases and desktop publishing. And if we can get to computers without "computability," it only becomes more important that Bush's Memex machine is conceived, first and foremost as a "thinking machine."

Because if the Educational Complex State started out needing a brazen head, and if, as now seems likely, it's not going to deliver on its "artificial intelligence" promise, if the future belongs to people making copies like magic wands and not with smoke-ring blowing magicians who will make human work obsolete, it seems to me like it might be time to rethink the Educational Complex State. 

Like, before this year's student loans are spent.(2)

Edit: Per Alex's comments:

The map should help. The chapter references are to a comparatively recent U.S. Navy American Sailing Directions via UC San Diego.  Chapter 6 starts on 167, if you have trouble finding the table of contents, as I did.

Here's another. It's been scraped, but from a tourist site, so let me take a moment to point out that Madeira is a great vacation destination. Go there. Go there now.

Some important points: i) if the Vikings brought their mice to Madeira, they were not going to any very well known Viking destination. On the other hand, who reads old Moroccan books? Even Moroccans tend to get tired of Sufi lineages after a while...(I recommend a bracing course of readings on pneumatology as an antidote.)

Madeira is 32 miles long, up to 12 miles wide, and rises to a summit at 6,100 ft, which means that from Islos Santos to the north, it looks like Vancouver's North Shore mountains. The southern slopes are more gradual than the abrupt northern. Funchal, its capital, lies on the southern shore, and has no proper port, but there is a sheltered anchorage extending south, with a shingle beach 1400 yards long on which one can land in gentle weather, as heavy surf is otherwise common. (From early modern times, the anchorage has been partially protected by an artificial breakwater.) The north coast, besides being precipitioius, has few good landing points, and these are extremely dangerous in northerly winds.

The basic point still holds. It's easy to get to Porto Santos, hard to get to Madeira, but there is not much reason to go to Porto Santos, which hasn't  much water, wood or provisions. The most economical interepretation of what is going on here is that Porto Santos was planted a long time before Madeira, and, if the mitochondrial DNA evidence holds, by northerners. Then the mice got to Madeira, 22 miles away, on their own. More-or-less, since once there are people on Porto Santos, woodcutting expeditions are likely. 

(1) My bibliographic ref is Fozard, John W. “Jubilees in Design and Development.” In  Sydney Camm and the Hurricane. Shrewsbury, U.K.: Airlife, 199. Ed. .John W. Fozard. Thanks, past me! No, you can't have a job doing library catalogues. 
 (2). I couldn't find a link to the old Ontario student joke about the "stereo acquisition programme," but, Holey Moley, look at this search result. I found before remembering the correct acronym.


  1. Arrival of mice on Madeira dated to 1033AD, 95% CI 903–1036. Hello to the Vikings:-)

  2. I wanted to put some images in, so most of my reply is in main text. All that said, Northern Europe>Portugal sailings clearly have a prehistory.

    On 23 May, 1147, a fleet of between 150 and 200 vessels departed the estuary of the Dart ("River of Oaks"). Drawn from the Rhineland, Brabant-Limbourg, Flanders, Boulogne, Normandy, Lincolnshire, East Anglia, London, and the major ports of southern England (Dover, Hastings, Southampton and Bristol), and with possibly other contingents from Scotland and Brittany, it might have carried as many as 10,000 men. and had a collective leadership including Count Arnold III of Aerschot, nephew of Godfrey of Bouillon; and English leadership including Hervey of Glanvill, Simon of Dover and Saher of Aschel.

    Nominally, the fleet was on its way to the Holy Land, but it included veterans of a failed attempt to take the city and castle of Lisbon in 1142. This time, perhaps arriving in coordination with the Portuguese effort on land, it would succeed. Some of the fleet would then continue to the Holy Land, arriving in the summer of 1148 to participate in the Second Crusade, under the leadership of Paul Wolfowitz, in a previous and less enlightened incarnation.

    The point here is that this a a big fleet to very confidently set out on a full-dress voyage to the Levant, and not the first, either, since another intervened in the First Crusade. We just know less about it and its leadership, because no-one write an epic poem about the fall of Lisbon that time round, for fairly obvious reasons...

    The question is whether the Levant trade predates the turn of the millennia, and we can draw in Mediterranean pottery found at Castle Tintagel, Adomnan's description of the Holy Land, and, perhaps, vague intimations that the formation of Wessex is linked to the pre-existing trade of the southwestern ports --not to the Holy Land, I owuld say, since I haven't any evidence of anything so geographically extravagant, but to somewhere