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From the Editor's Desk

David Alan

Pages: p. 2

Baron von Kempelen's Chess-Playing Turk—featured on the cover of this issue of Annals—was not really a computer in any sense of the word. In the bluntest language, it was a con game, a means of separating fools and their money. In his 1970s novel on the chess-playing machine ( King Kill, Random House, 1977), author Tom Gavin portrays von Kempelen as a peer of Mark Twain's Duke and Dauphin, the sharpsters in Huckleberry Finn who work the towns that spread along the Mississippi River. The Events and Sightings column in this issue reviews the history of the Turk and explains how the intelligence behind the Turk had a very human origin.

In a more generous light, the Chess-Playing Turk is an example of the aspirations of the Industrial Age. As inventors began to build more complicated machinery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they pursued goals that remain part of our life in the 21st century. They wanted machines that would relieve them of the tedium of "mental labor," as Charles Babbage described it. They wanted to gather and disseminate information over large distances. They wanted to build a machine that could think or at least mimic the actions of a thinking person.

In King Kill, Gavin suggests that von Kempelen was intrigued by the idea of building a thinking machine—at least enough intrigued to speculate on how such a machine might be built. Von Kempelen had real mechanical talent. He was recognized by no less an authority than Ludwig von Beethoven for the design of a metronome. Had he speculated more effectively on the nature of thinking machines, he might be renowned for more than swindling.

In all fairness, it should be noted that he lived in an age before Charles Babbage, George Boole, and others who laid the foundation for the modern computer. Von Kempelen may have speculated about machines that would appear nearly two centuries after his time, but he was clearly a figure of his time, and not a foreshadow of Turing, von Neumann, or any of the others who contributed to the modern computer.

The story of the Chess-Playing Turk reminds us that the vision of the computer has always preceded the machine itself. We can see what we want to do before we do it. As many readers of this magazine know, we have often announced these visions before we know how to implement them. In the 1960s, computer manufactures announced new models with powerful features long before they had designed such machines. In the 1980s, the trade press defined the concept of "vaporware", software that existed as an idea in some designer's mind but had yet to be written in code. "Where there is no vision," wrote King Solomon, "the people perish." The designers of computing machines have had visions from the start and these visions have often run far ahead of practice.

In this issue, we see how visions have moved from the ethereal plane of ideas to the concrete reality of actual machines and working software. We have

  • the story of computer science education and research at Purdue;
  • a memoir of a pioneer;
  • a study of the rise and fall of Sydis;
  • a treatment of an early leader in the computer industry at Philco; and
  • two pieces on how computers were explained to a larger public—the story of how the BBC presented computing machines in broadcasts and a recollection of how the trade journal Datamation helped shape the new field of data processing in the 1950s.

This last article is particularly touching as its author, Mr. Robert Head, died between the time he submitted the article and its publication in this issue of Annals. Not only do our visions precede our acts, they can also outlive our deeds.

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