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Writing my own computing language for Trac


Modular 1: The first computer for the lab
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I'd been very impressed by what I'd seen at the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] group on… in the artificial intelligence group, where my friend from South Africa, Seymour Papert, now had a job as a professor in… in MIT and working with Marvin Minsky. And while getting to Woods Hole in the late '60s I renewed my long… my acquaintance… my friendship with Seymour and visited the MIT Artificial Intelligence Centre on many occasions. And I could already begin to see that computers would not only be laboratory tools, but in fact they would contain the essence of what we might be doing in the future. Of course in those days if you asked for an American machine you never got it. And I remember we did pursue the possibility of buying a used computer, which the MRC [Medical Research Council] thought was rather, you know… to be suspected. I mean, nobody, no, no good organisation buys a second-hand computer. But we finally decided to… they told us we had to get an English machine, and we finally found a machine that had… a very advanced machine, advanced beyond its time, called the Modular I, which had been set up in a small company in Hemel Hempstead called Computer Technology Ltd - alas since bitten the dust - and this is the machine we bought. I'll never forget the day when the MRC phoned me and said, we have agreed to… to buy your computer, and oh, by the way, will you serve on this committee for us? And so, of course, I couldn't refuse that. That would have been not very appropriate. So we got this machine and in the new building one floor had been left out. Not built. The idea was that we could occupy… the idea the MRC had was that they would build the entire building, but not… build the shell of certain parts and leave room for further expansion. Because they said that that building should only be used not to expand the work of people already there, but to bring new work in, which I think is a very healthy idea when you are building an institute. And so this was a shell of a building which was just concrete, it was just… it was the most wonderful building I've ever worked in. There were no services except electrical services which we led in on wires on the floor. Because it was rather dirty, and everybody was very neurotic about computers having clean air and air conditioned, we lined half of this building with paper. We put down cardboard and paper on the floor, we cleaned it up, and there we had this hall with this computer sitting in the middle and acres of space to enjoy yourself with. We needed acres of space because in those days this computer had no means of doing anything except an assembly program... an assembler program - had no high-level language programmed for it, and all input and output was done on paper tape. And I can remember lying on the floor with all of this paper tape unwound, going through and editing the single punched holes with… with patches, saying, well, you know, this should not be 101, but should be 110, this byte here, and actually going and drilling the holes again and putting it in. I think it was the most interesting period in the sense that that is where one got down to the actual essence of computing. And David Marr and John White and Graham Mitchison and I had become so skilled that we thought nothing of sort of writing graphical operating systems for this… for this machine. As a complete amateur I remember changing the Fortran compiler so that it would work off our disk. And you know, just sort of being quite au fait in being able to actually think in assembler language.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Medical Research Council, Seymour Papert

Duration: 5 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010