Category Archives: History

Babbage’s Difference Engine

Source: Computer History Museum, date indeterminate

In 1985 the Science Museum in London set out to construct a working Difference Engine No. 2 built faithfully to Babbage’s original designs dating from 1847-9.

The project took seventeen years to complete. The calculating section was finished in 1991 in time for the bicentenary of Babbage’s birth.

Related Reading: IEEExplore, Oct-Dec 2000

The engine performed its first automatic error free calculation on 29 November 1991, twenty-seven days before the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth, which had been the original target


Ada Lovelace – the 1st Programmer

Source: The New Yorker, Oct 2013

On January 5, 1841, she asked, “What is Imagination?” Two things, she thought. First, “the combining faculty,” which “seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection,” and then, she wrote, “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”

 Related Resource: PsychCentral, Oct 2014

“Mathematical science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things… Imagination too shows what is … Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!”

believed that intuition and imagination were critical to effectively applying mathematical and scientific concepts.


Steve Jobs: Contribute; it’s not just about passion …

Source: Business Insider, Mar 2015

“Yeah, we’re always talking about following your passion,” Jobs reportedly said, “but we’re all part of the flow of history.”

Jobs continued:

You’ve got to put something back into the flow of history that’s going to help your community, help other people …

so that 20, 30, 40 years from now … people will say, this person didn’t just have a passion, he cared about making something that other people could benefit from.

100 Year-old Companies, Sep 2014

logo - alibaba

Ma’s vision was for the company he founded in 1999 to grow while helping China’s small and midsize companies conduct business around the world using the Internet, and to endure for 102 years so that it could straddle three centuries., date indeterminate

logo - evernote

We wanted to make a company that was durable, that would be around for 100 years, and did a little research about that. There’s a little bit over 3,000 companies in existence right now that are more than 100 years old, and the vast majority of them are in Japan.

We wanted to do that; we wanted to make something that would be long-term, that was going to be sustainable, but it wasn’t enough to just make a 100-year-old company. Just because they’ve been around for a long time doesn’t necessarily make them great places to be. We said, 100-year startup, we still want to be a startup in 100 years.

Da Vinci: Shaping the Future Exhibit

Just visited the Da Vinci: Shaping the Future exhibit in Singapore.  Awesome!

For Leonardo da Vinci, mathematics was the ultimate key to understanding nature and could be applied in both art and science.


HR Perot Rescues the 1st Computer

Source: Wired, Nov 2014

Perot’s people decided to acquire a more singular prize: a big chunk of ENIAC, the “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.” The ENIAC was a 27-ton, 1,800-square-foot bundle of vacuum tubes and diodes that was arguably the world’s first true computer. The hardware that Perot’s team diligently unearthed and lovingly refurbished is now accessible to the general public for the first time, back at the same Army base where it almost rotted into oblivion.

… the machine could execute 5,000 instructions per second, a capability that made it a thousand times faster than the electromechanical calculators of the day. (An iPhone 6, by contrast, can zip through 25 billion instructions per second.)


Why teaching humanities improves innovation

Source: World Economic Forum blog, Sep 2014

To lay the foundation for a future based on ideas and invention, businesses and governments should consider how new products and methods emerged in some of history’s most innovative economies: the United Kingdom and the US as early as 1820, and Germany and France later in the nineteenth century. In these economies, innovation was powered not by global scientific progress, but by the population’s dynamism – their desire, capacity and latitude to create – and willingness to allow the financial sector to steer them away from unpromising pursuits.

What economies need instead is a boost in dynamism. The problem is that the historically most innovative economies have lost much of their former dynamism, despite retaining an edge in social media and some high-technology sectors. And others – for example, Spain and the Netherlands – were never particularly dynamic. Meanwhile, the emerging economies that are supposed to be filling the gap – notably, China – are still falling short of the levels of innovation required to offset the declining benefits of technology transfer.

economies today lack the spirit of innovation. Labour markets do not need only more technical expertise; they require an increasing number of soft skills, like the ability to think imaginatively, develop creative solutions to complex challenges and adapt to changing circumstances and new constraints.

That is what young people need from education. Specifically, students must be exposed to – and learn to appreciate – the modern values associated with individualism, which emerged toward the end of the Renaissance and continued to gain traction through the early twentieth century. Just as these values fueled dynamism in the past, they can reinvigorate economies today.

A necessary first step is to restore the humanities in high school and university curricula. Exposure to literature, philosophy, and history will inspire young people to seek a life of richness – one that includes making creative, innovative contributions to society. Indeed, studying the “canon” will do more than provide young people with a set of narrow skills; it will shape their perceptions, ambitions, and capabilities in new and invigorating ways.

Human-Machine Symbiosis

Source:  Gizmod0, Oct 2014

the narrative of my book is that instead of pursuing the mirage of artificial intelligence, in which machines will think without us, what’s been particularly successful and will be in the future is making even more intimate connections between ourselves and our machines—having them much more embedded into our lives.

Q: Alan Turing is a fascinating figure. But in your discussion of AI you point to the limits of viewing computing as akin to human thinking. You’re more sympathetic to augmented intelligence, of using powerful machines as collaborators to human creativity. Why is that?

WI: When you look at the history of the past 50 years, the leaps have come from forging more intimate connections between humans and machines, rather than creating machines that don’t benefit from the connection of human creativity. So the concept that we’re about to reach a singularity where machines will be able to do things without us doesn’t seem to follow the data points we have of the past 50 years.

I do believe that economic inequality and a lack of economic opportunity for much of our society is the political, economic, and moral issue of our time.

I wouldn’t blame the app economy or the sharing economy for either causing this problem nor solving this problem. But I think if we dedicate ourselves as a society to making sure that digital tools are used to produce economic opportunity for everybody and a shared prosperity for everybody, that would be great for the whole economy and more importantly it would be the moral thing to do.

Q: What should we take away from the history of the digital age?

WI: America is still the most fertile ground for innovation because we have rebellious and curious people. We have an entrepreneurial spirit, a tolerance for risk and failure. However, there are some things we should pay attention to. One is making sure that everybody gets included in this revolution, including people born in less privileged zip codes and including women.

It’s very important that we use our technology to improve the educational opportunities for all, rather than focusing only on apps that, you know, crowdsource the ratings of restaurants.

That’s not something government can force. I think it’s what we all do as a society ever since the days of Benjamin Franklin. To use his words: “How can we do well by doing good?” I think the next phase of the digital revolution can be more inclusive. I hope.

Additional Resources:

Washington Post, Oct 2014

Isaacson instead eyes the future of collaborative creativity with a clarion call for “poetical science.” He champions the merger of art and technology at the heart of the most successful innovators, from Lovelace to Jobs. “The Innovators,” he writes, is a story of the progress of human-computer symbiosis, not artificial intelligence. Its next phase “will bring even more new methods of marrying technology with . . . media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, literature, and the arts.” Indeed, the world’s universities (including my own) are fast at work building infrastructure to instill a “rebellious sense of wonder” in students lest they and the institutions that train them become historical “bystanders.”


What will bring about these poetical innovators? A diverse ecosystem is vital; timing matters; you need venture capital; and a functioning government; big ideas develop across generations; it helps if your mother is a mathematician; war is an engine of change; you never know whom you’ll meet on a train platform; childhood books shape us profoundly; and on and on. But digital geeks scouring their Kindles for insight in this latter-day “Lives” also will find that a basic secret endures — conviction that the best of all possible worlds is limited only by imagination.

 Simon and Schuster website, Oct 2014

I also became interested in how the quest for artificial intelligence—machines that think on their own—has consistently proved less fruitful than creating ways to forge a partnership or symbiosis between people and machines. In other words, the collaborative creativity that marked the digital age included collaboration between humans and machines.

What if He had Killed Hitler During WW I?

Source: FirstWorldWar, Aug 2009

The annals of history are full of fateful moments which scholars refer to as the great “what if’s” of history, where if events had taken only a slight deviation the course of human affairs would have been dramatically different.

Such a moment occurred in the last moments of the Great War in the French village of Marcoing involving 27 year old Private Henry Tandey of Warwickshire, UK, and 29 year old Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler of Braunau, Austria.

As the ferocious battle wound down and enemy troops surrendered or retreated a wounded German soldier limped out of the maelstrom and into Private Tandey’s line of fire, the battle weary man never raised his rifle and just stared at Tandey resigned to the inevitable.  “I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man,” said Tandey, “so I let him go.” [2]

The young German soldier nodded in thanks and the two men took diverging paths, that day and in history.  Hitler retreated with the remnants of German troops and ended up in Germany, where he languished in the humiliation of defeat at wars end.

In 1938 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), Conservative PM from 1937-40, made his gloomy trip to Munich to meet Chancellor Hitler in a last ditched effort to avoid war which resulted in the ill-fated ‘Munich Agreement’.  During that fateful trip Hitler invited him to his newly completed retreat in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, a birthday present from Martin Bormann and the Nazi Party.

Perched 6017 feet up on Kehlstein Mountain it commanded spectacular views for 200 kilometers in all directions.  While there the Prime Minister explored the hill top lair of the Fuehrer and found a reproduction of Matania’s famous Marcoing painting depicting allied troops, puzzled by the choice of art Hitler explained, “that man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again, providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us”. [2]

Hitler seized the moment to have his best wishes and gratitude conveyed to Tandey by the Prime Minister, who promised to phone him on his return to London.  It wasn’t until that time Tandey knew the man he had in his gun sight 20 years earlier was Adolf Hitler and it came as a great shock, given tensions at the time it wasn’t something he felt proud about.

Tandey was haunted the remainder of his life by his good deed, the simple squeeze of a trigger would have spared the world a catastrophe which cost tens of millions of lives.