Enter the maze

Back (page) to the beginning

By Peter W McOwan. Selected by Jo Brodie, Queen Mary University of London

A stadium with 0 roof:Image by Marco Pomella from Pixabay REF 2791693

Peter McOwan, who died in 2019, wrote the back pages to cs4fn magazine for over 15 years, finding quirky but true stories about computing and technology (and writing terrible puns). Here we put together some of our favourites going all the way back to issue 1.

Pondering people's predictions (Issue 1)

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers" said Thomas Watson in 1943, chairman of IBM, a company that later went on to revolutionise the home PC market.

Saying: You say it best when you say nothing at all

Muslim programs (Issue 4)

In the 9th century in Baghdad the Persian Muslim scholar Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote a book 'On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals'. It was responsible for the subsequent widespread use of the Hindu-arabic number system we use today. He also wrote rules for doing arithmetic using this system. The word algorithm, derived from his name, started to be used to refer to such rules that could be followed to achieve a calculation. Once computers were eventually invented in the 20th century this whole idea of algorithms suddenly became crucial as that is really all a computer program is: a set of instructions that if followed precisely in the given order lead to some task being achieved...but now followed by a computer rather than by a mathematician.

Life Lesson: Always have a plan and stick to it!

The importance of nothing (Issue 14)

Computers live in a binary world of 1s and 0s, but where did 0 come from? We owe the big something that is nothing to the Indian mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta (598-668 AD). Brahmagupta was the first person to use zero as a number: he invented nothing! He also founded the modern rule that two negative numbers multiplied together equals a positive number. Like other Indian scholars at the time, he wrote his books in verse, so his work was not only mathematical but poetic.

Motto: nothing can turn out to be a really big something

Sick of tweeting (Issue 15)

Twitter, the popular social media platform, lets people tell the world what they are up to, from buying beans in the supermarket to feeling a bit ill. Computer scientists are working to develop ways to extract key words from tweets that indicate the onset of particular diseases, so that preparations can be made to treat them. This way of crowdsourcing information on the spread of disease could prove useful in the future. Diagnosis: saying you're sick doesn't make you a tweet Doh, ray, me, F.A. sew, la, T... (Issue 21) Football associations world-wide realise that getting a good crowd roar in the stadium enhances the spectators' appreciation of the game. Stadiums are often computer designed to reflect the sound back into the field, or microphones are used to pick up the sounds that are then played back on speakers.

Note: sounds like a gooooooalllllllll

A moth: Image by Nika Akin from Pixabay REF 4500348

And finally expect the unexpected (Issue 2)

In the early days of electronic computers, they used relays, electromechanical switches that rocked up and down to switch the electrical circuits. Grace Murray Hopper, who was in charge of the team working with the Mark II computer, found that a moth had flown through the window and blocked one of the relays, so shutting the system down. This is arguably where the term computer 'bug' comes from.

The moral: The things some moths get into can be shocking!