Issue No. 04 - Oct.-Dec. (2012 vol. 34)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MAHC.2012.68
Michael Geselowitz , IEEE History Center
This fourth quarter of the year is the annual Nobel Prize season. The prize winners will be announced in the second week of October, and the prizes will be awarded on 10 December at a royal banquet in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden (except for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is handed out in Oslo, Norway).
These prizes are considered the gold standard of human achievement, and engineers have long regretted the irony that Alfred Nobel (1833–1896)—a successful engineer, inventor (dynamite), and entrepreneur rather than a scientist (although the terms were more fluid in the 19th century)—chose to endow prizes in the sciences (physics, chemistry, physiology, or medicine), literature, and "peace." (Economics was added later.) Thus, you will often hear references to the Turing Award as "the Noble Prize of Computer Science" or the Gordon Prize as "the Nobel Prize of Engineering," in an attempt to rectify the oversight.
Now, it is true that some engineers have managed to win the Nobel Prize, however, so I would still encourage a visit to the Nobelmuseet (Nobel Museum, www.nobelmuseum.se/en) while in the Old Town at the heart of Stockholm.
For readers of the Annals who might be planning to attend the Nobel banquet, there is at least one computing site to see to soothe your indignation. Stockholm is a world-class tourist city with many superb museums and other attractions, and the computing professional should make a beeline for the Tekniska Museet (the Swedish national Museum of Science Technology, www.tekniskamuseet.se/1/start_en.html). It is located away from central Stockholm in the Museum Park, surrounded by other great museums such as the Ethnographic and Maritime Museums. The park is easily accessible by public transportation and has other recreational attractions as well.
For the technical visitor, however, the Tekniska Museet itself is the place to be. It is unusual in being both a top-notch science and technology center and the main museum responsible for preserving Sweden's technological and industrial heritage. The permanent and rotating exhibits open to the public are always fascinating, but the museum is also a mecca for researchers. Recently, the museum completed a major project that documents the use of computers in Sweden from 1950 to 1980 ( www.tekniskamuseet.se/1/192_en.html), and its archive is now a valuable repository of oral histories and other material in this area.
Of course, given Sweden's role in the Industrial Revolution, computing there well predates 1950. At the museum you will also learn about Willgodt Odhner (1845–1905), who invented a commercially successful mechanical calculator in 1876. The company he founded was a major producer of calculators through the 1970s, after which it went into decline and through a series of acquisitions and mergers, Although the company ultimately went completely out of business in 1998, if you have time to travel completely across Sweden, it is worth a visit to the original factory site in Gothenburg—not because there is anything to see at the site, but because Gothenburg is Sweden's second city, with magnificent architecture and many well-known cultural events such as music festivals.
Two other important Swedish inventors of interest featured at the museum help to drive home the point that even electronic computers, let alone mechanical calculators, need hardware as well as software. The first is Waldmar Jungner (1869–1924), who invented the nickel-cadmium battery in 1899. Try to run many of your modern high-tech devices without these rechargeable power sources! The company he founded is part of Saft AB, an international firm still making NiCd batteries, but there's no real trace of it in Sweden.
The final inventor to highlight is Johan Petter Johansson (1853–1943), who invented not one but two world-changing devices: the adjustable pipe wrench (1888) and an improved adjustable spanner that became the worldwide standard (1891). In many parts of the word, adjustable spanners are still called "Swedish keys." If you wonder in the age of tablets and handhelds what this has to do with computing, think back to the mainframe era when racks of electronics were held together by nuts and screws of every imaginable shape and size.
Unfortunately this company, too, went through various mergers and acquisitions and is today part of Bahco, a major tool company headquartered in Paris. There is still a manufacturing facility at Johansson's original site just west of Stockholm in Enköping, however, if you want to make an excursion to see the beautiful Swedish countryside (including some famous prehistoric rock art). Or just leave the museum and head to your hotel to change into your tuxedo for the Nobel Banquet.
Michael N. Geselowitz is the staff director of the IEEE History Center. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.