Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

April 3, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Posted in Innovation | 5 Comments
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A middle-aged man and a teenager were talking.  The teenager said “I can’t imagine growing up in your time.  There was no high-definition colour TV, no Internet to find the information you need on any subject and no mobile phone to stay in touch with your friends from anywhere.”  The older man thought about this for a moment and replied “You know what?  You’re right, we didn’t have any of those things.  So, we had to invent them.  Now tell me you arrogant little @$*%, what are you doing for the next generation?”

I was reminded of this apocryphal story, when I read today of the recent death of Dr Henry Edward Roberts.  Now, I’m sure that’s a name that doesn’t mean much to a lot of people, but Ed Roberts’ contribution to computing was enough for him to be known as the “Father of the Personal Computer”.  He was the founder of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems.  MITS originally sold electronics kits to amateur rocket enthusiasts, but launched the Altair 8800 microcomputer on the front page of “Popular Electronics” in January 1975.  Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was that Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote Altair-Basic” to allow users to program the computer.  Both Gates and Allen worked for MITS before founding “Micro-soft” as it was originally known.  In a statement issued jointly, Gates and Allen said “We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66 – where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then.”

The Altair 8800 was based on the Intel 8080 microprocessor (then less than a year old) and was supplied in kit form, had no display and was operated with switches.  It had just 7K of memory and the first load of Altair-Basic was done from punched paper tape.  To most people today, used to having multi-core processors, terabytes of disk storage and gigabytes of RAM in their home PC (and not that much less computing power in the smart phone in their pocket), it probably seems like little more than a toy.  My first home computer, bought in 1982 for £200 (an absolute fortune to me then) was an Acorn Atom.  Like the Altair, this arrived in kit form and had to be assembled.  It boasted 12K of RAM – armed with an article from a computing magazine, a soldering iron and a lot of nerve, I managed to exploit a 2K gap in the memory map, by “piggybacking” one RAM chip on top of another – it used a black and white portable TV as a monitor (through a temperamental RF modulator) and used an audio cassette deck for data and program storage.  Still primitive by today’s standards perhaps, but it allowed me to develop my programming skills and to understand at a very low level how things fit together.

It’s remarkable to remember that the computer industry has moved from mainframes and batch processing to the globally connected and mobile capability we have today all within my working lifetime.  From before the launch of the IBM PC, this capability has grown as visionaries have built upon the work of their predecessors, pioneers like Ed Roberts. 

To quote from Gates and Allen again, “The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things.”  Today, software from the company that sprung from that first success, Microsoft, touches every aspect of life around the World.  So, just as Newton said to Hooke nearly 350 years ago, today’s innovators owe their advances to the fact that they are standing on the shoulders of giants.

That’s Funny …

October 29, 2009 at 11:09 am | Posted in Innovation | Leave a comment
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Recently, there’s been a story running in the Times about how science students in schools – even A Level students – are being stopped from carrying out practical experiments because of Health and Safety concerns.  Mind you, the Chair of the Health and Safety Executive, Judith Hackitt is quick to deny any part in it.  “The HSE wholeheartedly supports science in the classroom. The thrill of the experiment and learning how to deal with risk is an important part of growing up.” she wrote in a letter to the Editor.

I was fortunate to grow up in the 50s and 60s.  In many ways, this was a gentler age, when, armed with microscope, telescope and a bike, I was able to roam freely, collecting bugs in jam jars and generally being curious.

Now, what happes if I heat it up?By the time I started at Grammar School, I had built radio receivers and sound powered telephones and had developed what proved to be a lifelong fascination with science and technology.  The Grammar School was newly opened and endowed with modern, well-equipped labs and dedicated, specialist teachers for all 3 sciences.  Some of my happiest memories of those years are of time spent in a darkened physics lab, firing white painted ball bearings across the room, photographing their trajectory under a strobe light!  From there, my path into engineering (and later into IT) was pretty much guaranteed.

Much later, I tried to instil that same curiosity into my children, taking them to visit power stations, TV studios, even sewage treatment plants (well, do you know how it’s done?).  MrsV1951 and I made sure they had the same range of educational toys and encouraged them to follow a science curriculum at school.  Our efforts included (of course) a chemistry set, and my children (now in their 30s) still talk in hushed tones about the failed experiment to produce hydrogen, which resulted in a loud (but harmless) explosion and coated the windows of the conservatory with a yellowy-brown film.  MrsV1951 failed to understand the significance of our discovery.

My point is this – to excite children about science and technology, you have to let them try for themselves, not just watch a You Tube video.  In the words of the proverb “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  There’s some dispute as to who originated the saying.  Maybe it was Aristotle, maybe it was Confucius.  In any event, type it into Google and you’ll get more than a million results.  And yet, we seem to have forgotten the central lesson.

It’s a similar story in maths.  If physics is a model of the world we live in, then maths is the language that describes and defines that model.  Going back to my school days, great effort was expended by teachers to ensure that we had the basic mechanics of maths, Sinclai Executive pocket claculato (1972)before we were ever allowed to employ any form of automation.  So, we learned our tables and we learned long multiplication and division and we learned a whole tool bag full of arithmetic techniques that you might collectively call “mental arithmetic”. 

Of course, “automation” in my school days meant log tables or (if you were doing engineering drawing as well) a slide rule.  The first electronic calculators didn’t become readily available until well after I left school.  But again, the same basic argument applies.  My understanding grew from relating theory to what I observed for myself.  For example, I never really understood differential equations, until I needed to apply them to electronic circuit design.

Quick Approximate Mental Arithmetic!And these skills don’t desert you.  It amuses me that I can work out a calculation in my head faster than (say) a shop assistant can using a calculator.  So, I was fascinated – and highly encouraged – by the efforts of inventor Ilan Samson.  In an effort to encourage people to improve their mental arithmetic, Samson has invented a new type of calculator called QAMA.  He claims that this stands for “Quick Approximate Mental Arithmetic”.  QAMA also just happens to mean “How much?” in Hebrew.

The essence of QAMA is that you enter the calculation you want to perform, but if you then press the Answer key, nothing happens.  You have to enter an estimate of the correct answer, before the calculator will tell you the result.  And now here’s the thing – your estimate has to be close enough to satisfy the calculator.  The tolerance on your estimate varies according to how difficult the calculation is!

Samson is trialling QAMA in schools and early results suggest it can lead to dramatic improvements after just a few days of use.  Try it out for yourself online at

So what am I claiming?  In a sincere effort to improve exam results, teachers are teaching children to follow instructions, not to think for themselves.  Calculators can’t replace thinking and video recordings can’t replace hands-on experimental science.  Our ability to continue developing advanced technologies is predicated on our understanding of science and mathematics and these in turn are built upon the basic practical skills learned in childhood.  As Ilan Samson puts it, “If you only carry out tasks that have been performed before, following pre-set rules, you will never be able to solve something new.”

But, I think the last word should go to another source of childhood inspiration, Isaac Asimov …

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

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