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Bright Boys

A K Peter
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Tom Green's book Bright Boys tells the story of the Whirlwind, an early computer system that became the foundation of the United States’ air defense systems in the late 1950s.

The Whirlwind went online in 1951, five years after the first general-purpose electronic computer, the ENIAC. The Whirlwind became the first computer to control external devices rather than just solving mathematical problems. It was the first computer to have a keyboard, monitor, modem, or printer. It also had a light gun interface, a precursor of the mouse.

The Whirlwind pioneered the use of magnetic-core memory in 1953. Magnetic-core memory was smaller, faster, and more reliable than the vacuum tubes used previously. The memory system introduced by Whirlwind became the standard for all computers until Intel Corporation introduced silicon memory chips in 1970.

The “bright boys” of the Whirlwind project were outsiders, scorned by the establishment for their lack of credentials and experience. (It seems amazing that there even was a credentialed computing establishment in the late 1940s, given the tiny number of man-years of computing experience on the planet at the time.) They made numerous breakthroughs that others believed impossible. For example, they developed a modem capable of transmitting 1,800 bits per second. One of the bright boys, Saul Rosen, recalled AT&T's reaction to news of their modem. “They said if one drives a telephone line over 600 bits per second, one has arrived at the end of the flat earth.”

The majority of Bright Boys is devoted to the military and political background of the Whirlwind project. The political background includes politics in the large, i.e. World War II and the Cold War, and politics in the small: personalities, budgets, etc. The book contains some technical details, but it contains more military details. It may appeal more to history buffs than to computer scientists.

There is little mention of mathematics in Bright Boys except for contrast: the Whirlwind succeeded despite opposition from mathematicians and broke ground by applying computers to non-mathematical problems. The book quotes John von Neumann dismissing any use of a computer for non-mathematical work as “a waste of a valuable scientific computing instrument.” Von Neumann would be shocked to see that computers are now predominantly used for non-mathematical tasks, even most computers belonging to mathematicians.

John D. Cook is a research statistician at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and blogs daily at The Endeavour.

Date Received: 
Monday, April 26, 2010
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Tom Green
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John D. Cook
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Sunday, May 23, 2010