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Writing a program for Russell Kirsch's SEAC


My first encounter with a computer
Marvin Minsky Scientist
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Actually, I first encountered computers in their most primitive form by hanging around the computation centre – I don’t remember what it was called, it may have been called the computation centre – at Harvard. There was a professor, Howard Aiken, who had developed a relay computer called the Mark I, and it was followed by another one called the Mark II. This was a very large machine entirely made of relays, which are magnetically controlled switches, and this could add numbers and multiply them with all sorts of little clicking switching and so forth. It didn’t have any… to programme it, you took a huge board with wires that you could plug in and connect this to that and this to that, and so forth, so a computer programme then was a board weighing about 50lbs with a few hundred wires plugged into various jacks, and it amounted to what might be the equivalent of 20 or 30 instructions on a modern computer.

So I didn’t think much of that, and it could compute about five or 10 operations per second, which also wasn’t very impressive, so that was a world that I sort of observed,  in fact I went to Aiken’s lectures and talked to the people there, and thought, well, maybe someday this will be fast enough to simulate the kind of things we’re talking about.

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was one of the pioneers of the field of Artificial Intelligence, founding the MIT AI lab in 1970. He also made many contributions to the fields of mathematics, cognitive psychology, robotics, optics and computational linguistics. Since the 1950s, he had been attempting to define and explain human cognition, the ideas of which can be found in his two books, The Emotion Machine and The Society of Mind. His many inventions include the first confocal scanning microscope, the first neural network simulator (SNARC) and the first LOGO 'turtle'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Harvard University, Howard Aiken

Duration: 1 minute, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: 29-31 Jan 2011

Date story went live: 09 May 2011