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You think that you understand technology but when you arrive at The Known World, you discover a land where software pirates sail the seven seas, Derek the Rocket Scientist holds a communal barn raising to install his solar roof, and the future of technology policy is perpetually debated by the Society for the Promotion of Goodness and its rival, the Association for the Prevention of Bad Things.  These are some of the people and institutions that populate The Known World and help explain the nature of society and technology.

This blog contains the essays of David Alan Grier, which appear each month to discuss the ideas, the culture and the stories of the digital age. These blog postings and podcasts come from the column of the same name in Computer.

This podcast is brought to you by Computer magazine, the flagship publication of the IEEE Computer Society.

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Entries with tag computer pioneers.

The Logical Steps of John McCarthy

 I belong to one of those lists that anticipates the passing of great engineers and scientists.  Over a week ago, it circulated the story, not well verified, that John McCarthy, pioneering computer scientist, had checked into a hospital for reasons unknown.  We lit an symbolic incandescent light in his honor, much the way that the employees of THomas Edison kept a lamp burning his final illness.  On the 24th we had to extinquish the light and acknolwedge that another member of the pioneer generation had left us. 

For the next couple of days, we had to bear the burden of a popular media that was trying to explan Dr. McCarthy's accomplishments and the reasons that made him important.  Most of these accounts stubmled over technical facts, misappropriated credit and generally misled the public.  As they treat so many persons in the public eye, they tried to make the case that McCarthy deserved our attention rather than the case that how he represented a profund change of thought. 

Few engineers labor in the adulation public eye.  They are judged by the ideas that they push not the attntion that they hold.  McC arthy was a leading part of the process that attempted to understand the relationship of human thought to predicate logic.  He did important work but he never dominatd the public arena for any period of time.  He did his work in the way that the best of due, with the careful attention to detail, the review of our peers and the cautious concern for his ultimate vision. 

Edison was a rare engineer who moved in the public eye and served a public purpose.  At the end, his live was properly represented by a light buring in the night that would be snuffed when he departed.  McCarthy was not that kind of engineer.  He accomplished much within our sphere and left much for others to do.  No light properlly represents this work, as it is better seen as a collection of ideas that McCarthy pushed into our lives and let cascade through culture.  It is possible to conconct a story to suggest that he deserved the world's attention but it is more accurate to state that he attended to the world's problems and let the results of that attention for others to build upon rather than extinquish.  



Maurice Wilkes

 The news arrived yesterday of the passing of Maurice Wilkes, who was about the last of the founding generation of computer pioneers.  Maurice was a student at the Moore School Lectures in the summer of 1946, which is generally considered the fount of computing knowledge.  He also built the first or fourth or third programmable computer, depending on how you count things.  The exact order is not important.  He was really the last link to that generation.  We are now on our own with none of the founders to guide us.  

I had a couple of conversations with Maurice, one being in his chambers at Cambridge.  It was a discussion of common interests that rambled over a number of subjects but really focussed on Babbage.  It is easy to invent the ghost of Babbage at Cambridge, as the Georgian buildings encourage you to see history even where none can be found.  Wilkes wrote extensively on Babbage.  he was one of the few computer pioneers who was able to be reflective with words.  He argued that Babbage was not the father of computer but rather the great uncle.  I think that concept is a more accurate description as we find it easy to press the past into the accomplishments of today.  

We had lunch at Maurice's college and then drove to the Gates Computer building on the edge of town.  Maurice drove.  He had a red Italian sports car and drove with a combination of enthusiasm and circumspection.  I toured the building, saw a few artifacts and said my goodbyes.  It is too easy to get worshipful in the company of someone like that.  He did the early work, to be sure, and wrote about it for IEEE periodicals but the real communications came from his accomplishments not from the person.  And those we still have with us.  



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David Alan Grier

David Alan Grier is a computer scientist, an established observer of the technology industry and a writer on issues of science and society.  In addition to producing The Known World, he has written two books,  When Computers Were Human, (Princeton University Press, 2005), which is the story of the workers who did scientific calculation before we had electronic computers.  In addition he has published Too Soon to Tell: Essays for the End of the Computer Revolution, (John Wiley/IEEE Computer Society, 2009).  A video of When Computers Were Human can be found here while a brief talk about Too Soon to Tell is found here. 

He is currently an associate professor at the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University.  

Despite sharing a common hometown and a common birth year with David Alan Grier the actor, he is an entirely different person.