December 2013

Volume 28 Number 12

Don't Get Me Started - Original Sin?

By David Platt | December 2013

David PlattWhen I want to impress a client, I take him to dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club. It’s an excellent place, except for some of the low-life scum it has as members. And the club has pretty much forgiven me for that unfortunate incident with the chandelier years ago. Afterward I take him on a campus tour, which includes the Harvard Science Center, where I taught for years before the school moved me to a video studio.

The Science Center lobby contains the historic Harvard Mark I calculator (Figure 1), widely considered the world’s first general-­purpose programmable computation machine. It operated electro-mechanically rather than being purely electronic, with instructions fed in via paper tape. It was dedicated in August of 1944, about a year before the end of the Second World War.

The Harvard Mark I calculator was used in the design of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Figure 1 The Harvard Mark I calculator was used in the design of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

The interpretive signs on the display are boring, even by academic standards, and downplay the fact that the very first thing this first computer did was calculate implosions as part of the Manhattan Project. It was only a year after World War II had ended that programmers working with the Mark I learned that the computer had helped drive the design of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

It’s hard to be indifferent to the atomic bombing that ended the Second World War. If you believe it to be the greatest war crime ever committed, then this machine should be preserved as a horrible reminder of technology servicing evil, as Germany to its credit has preserved its death camps and Japan to its shame has not. On the other hand, historian William Manchester, badly wounded as a Marine sergeant in the invasion of Okinawa, wrote: “You think of the lives which would have been lost in an invasion of Japan’s home islands—a staggering number of American lives but millions more of Japanese—and you thank God for the atomic bomb” (“Goodbye, Darkness; A Memoir of the Pacific War,” Little Brown, 1979). If you agree with Manchester, then the world contains few artifacts that have saved as many lives as this one (though Turing’s Enigma-decrypting bombe [bit.ly/2KB0x] springs to mind), and its display should be a shrine.

The current display is neither. It’s a somewhat interesting artifact to show my fellow geeks. We chuckle about how far we’ve come: this thing the size of a boxcar had less computing power than my toothbrush has today. Then my client and I go off and discuss how he can pay me more money. (I like that part.)

Harvard is missing an astounding educational opportunity here. I suspect that’s because Harvard doesn’t want to get into any controversy, having had enough when Larry Summers was president.

Sometimes I swing by the Science Center after teaching my evening class and just look at the Mark I and think about the bomb. Should we have dropped it? Should we have even developed it? I contemplate Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novel “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” (Roc, 2004), where the Nazis got the bomb first. In the book, Turtledove describes a museum in Berlin that contains “behind thick leaded glass, the twisted radioactive remains of the Liberty Bell, excavated by expendable prisoners from the ruins of Philadelphia.” Partly because of the men (and women—Grace Hopper was this machine’s third programmer) who ran this beast, that timeline didn’t happen. That suits me, and I sleep. And yet, and yet.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos lab that produced the first atomic bomb. He later wrote of those times: “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

Late at night, when the laughing undergraduates with their iPhones have drifted off in search of beer and sex, the lights are dim and the Science Center is quiet. I swear I hear the Mark I’s relays clicking as it iterates through ghostly calculations, awaiting a HALT instruction that will never come from operators long dead. Am I hearing the faint echo of our industry’s own original sin?


David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.