The peripheral reach of old computers

19.01, Wednesday 12 May 2021

EDSAC was one of the very first computers to allow for loading programs, in 1949, and it sounds like a delightfully sensory experience.

(Previously computers were programmed by re-wiring their control panels. When ENIAC, the first fully electronic, digital computer, was upgraded from control panels to loading programs in 1948, it reduced the reprogramming time to hours instead of days.)

Here’s what loading an app on EDSAC was like, as related on Wikipedia:

Users prepared their programs by punching them (in assembler) onto a paper tape. … When a program was ready it was hung on a length of line strung up near the paper tape reader.

The machine operators would feed the tape in when its turn came. I like this image of a washing line, you can just imagine hanging up your program and sighing because there are so many already there.

And then:

A loudspeaker was connected to the accumulator’s sign bit; experienced users knew healthy and unhealthy sounds of programs, particularly programs ‘hung’ in a loop.

I am super into this noisiness.

But what I am into more particularly is the work of the computer being spread around the room.

I love Natalie Jeremijenko’s seminal Live Wire (Dangling String) (1995) created when she was artist-in-residence at Xerox PARC.

Created by artist Natalie Jeremijenko, the “Dangling String” is an 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor. A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive.

Here’s the closing statement of the paper:

The dangling string increases our peripheral reach to the formerly inaccessible network traffic. While screen displays of traffic are common, their symbols require interpretation and attention, and do not peripheralize well. The string, in part because it is actually in the physical world, has a better impedance match with our brain’s peripheral nerve centers.

Pre-symbolic, non-obtrusive, peripheral reach.

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