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Jocelyn Paine

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

A History of Computing in 100 Objects

November 15, 2010

Radio 4 has been broadcasting an excellent series called A History of the World in 100 Objects. Each programme in the series lasts for 15 minutes, and explains what one particular object from the British Museum tells us about the history of the world. The objects range from a stone chopping tool found in the Olduvai Gorge to a Hockney etching that illustrates same-sex love in the works of Cavafy, a credit card, and a solar-powered lamp and charger for use in countries where there's no electric grid. Turning on the radio after my run this morning, I heard a new programme: A History of the Ashes in 100 Objects. So maybe the phrase will become an idiom; and to speed it on its way, I'd like to ask which objects you'd choose to illustrate A History of Computing in 100 Objects.

This would make a nice little series for Dobbs, and if they follow it up, I expect Jon to give me a cut for the idea. At any rate, while listening to the Ashes programme, I realised that two of my computing objects would be the IBM Selectric APL keyboard and the Latin-1 character set. They symbolise the gulf that so often exists between aspiration and attainment.

The APL keyboard: implementing a marvellously concise notation from a revolutionary programming language that enabled you to avoid imperative tangles of gotos and loops by coding directly into simple but elegant mathematical concepts.

But look at Latin-1. This has the unaccented Roman alphabet. It has é, ö, ç, ß, and þ. But it doesn't have Hungarian ő and ű, Romanian ă and ș, or Czech č and š. It doesn't let me print a letter addressed to my friend Răzvan in Ploiești. It doesn't let me name mathematician Paul Erdős, Jaroslav Hašek who wrote The Good Soldier Švejk, or Karel Čapek who popularised the word "robot". Yet it has ¼ and ½ and ¾ (but not 1/3 or 5/6), and ¶, and @ which one can write as "at", and # which I've never seen the point of. Latin-1 is an insular compromise that ignored half a continent.

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