Tag Archive for 'History'

WW1 Propaganda: a sinister form of art

WW1 Italian military propaganda postcardNew on my Possibly Interesting site: Heroes and Barbarians, Propaganda postcards from the Great War.

Showcasing a collection of postcards issued to Italian soldiers in the first world war, in order to urge them to fight in that tragically senseless conflict.

An illuminating, if disturbing, lesson in how to craft hate propaganda.



Two primordial hunters

Nimrod, by Itzhak DanzigerOne of the most famous sculptures made in Israel is “Nimrod”, created in 1939 by Itzhak Danziger.

A powerful figure in red sandstone, it depicts a naked young man with a falcon on his shoulder and a sword held behind his back, looking intensely ahead.

This is Nimrod, the biblical great-grandson of Noah, king of a number of  cities in Mesopotamia, and traditionally considered the leader of those who built the Tower of Babel. He is also cited as a mighty hunter, the original prototypical hunter of animals.

So what?

So, in October 1988 the National Geographic Magazine published on its cover a photo of a small carving, in mammoth ivory, of a male human head. This was found in Dolní Vestonice in Czechoslovakia, a rich archaeological site that had yielded a number of sculptures, including one of those obese “Venus” figurines. The carving is dated to some 26,000 years ago or earlier, and is the earliest representation of a specific person that has come to us from our ancestors.

And it instantly evoked in me the face of Danziger’s Nimrod, as you can see in the photos below:

Danziger's Nimrod and the ivory head from Dolni Vestonice

Both figures represent hunters (well, we can’t know for sure what the caveman on the left did, but I doubt he was into computer programming). Both hunters come from the dawn of human history. And both have the same indescribable expression on their face.

What a cool coincidence!


Timeless Dice


Some designs never change…

Consider this one:

Play Dice

Two instances of the same product exactly – but separated in time by two millennia. The die on the left is one of a collection of bone dice I saw in the archeological museum of Pompeii. The design worked then, and it works now. Nothing to improve…

Here is the lot of them (pardon the poor camera on my then cellphone):

Dice from Pompeii

[Photo credit for the modern die: Double Six Dice by Joy Shrader ]

Excellent human engineering in the Small Calculator

A century ago Gilbert Small, of Waltham, Massachusetts, invented a compact pocket calculator that is small, effective, and designed with special attention to usability.

Read the new article on my History of Computing site to see what he’d crafted!

The Small calculator

A lovely 18th c. gauging slide rule

The art of Gauging and Ullaging,  i.e. assessing the quantity of  liquor, beer or malt in a barrel in order to tax it properly, used to be an important application of mathematics, and resulted in the development of some intricate computing devices over the last few centuries.

E. Roberts Everard-style Gauging SlideruleCheck the new article on my History of Computing site to see a lovely Everard-style gauging slide rule dating back to the 18th century, and learn how to apply it in case you ever need to ullage a cask of ale!

Elisha Kally’s wondrous calculator

New article on my History of Computing site: Elisha Kally’s water flow calculator, a sophisticated network calculator based on the Hazen-Williams formula.

Elisha Kally's Hazen-Williams calculator

This ingenious slide rule can calculate flows and hydraulic head losses in complicated networks comprising up to six different pipes,  all at once.

Check it out!

The HP150 Touch Screen: a cautionary tale

Not all cool ideas are actually good.

Back in 1983, around the time the IBM PC made its debut, my boss at Intel had acquired a very innovative personal computer: the Hewlett Packard 150.

I remember it well; it was a really cool machine – at least in the context of its day: it had an 8MHz (yes, 0.008 GHz) CPU and 256KB (0.000256 GB) memory, as well as two floppy disks of 270KB each. It also had that solid look and feel that the better companies gave their machines when they could charge thousands of dollars for them. But what made it super cool was the screen, and the ad here shows you how proud HP was of developing it:

HP 150 poster

Photo source: Vintage Computing and Gaming.

The HP 150 had the first Touch Screen I’ve ever seen on a commercial computer. It was actually a regular nine inch green CRT, with a bezel that had holes all around it with IR emitters and detectors in them; sticking a finger at the screen would block some IR rays and tell the computer where you were pointing. And this is where the designers had failed: they forgot that the human arm is not designed to be held in the air, poking at a surface in front of one’s face. The resultant muscle fatigue was known as Gorilla Arm…

That alone was enough to relegate this screen to the junk heap of failed ideas, and touch screens would have to wait for tablets and devices that can lie flat on a tabletop or be held in one’s hand.

Still, you have to admit it was a good looking machine!

HP 150 computer
Photo source: Computer museum, Stuttgart University.


How the Slide Rule got its Cursor

A new article on my History of Computing site traces the evolution of the straight slide rule over its 3 centuries of service.

Duplex cursor, end of 19th centuryFrom a design perspective this progress is an interesting one to follow because the same basic principle evolves through a sequence of progressively more effective designs, culminating in the familiar form that had helped put a man on the moon in the sixties.

Check it out here!

Grace Hopper as Susan Calvin

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was one of the legendary pioneers of computing in the 20th century; among other achievements she had written the first compiler. Here is a well-known photo of her with some colleagues at the console of a Univac-1 computer back in 1957.

Grace Hopper next to Univac 1 console,1957

And whenever I see this photo, I am reminded vividly of Dr. Susan Calvin, Robopsychologist at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation, as featured in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. I don’t mean the silly action movie starring Will Smith; that had Dr. Calvin as a sexy young chick. In the book (which is much different and way better) Calvin is a strict, prim, spinsterish lady who clearly feels more at home with robots than among humans, whom she treats with a dispassionate aloofness most of the time. She is also the smartest human in the book, by a large margin; an ultimate Geek, in fact.

There are those who claim that Hopper was Asimov’s model for his heroine; be that as it may, if I had to imagine Susan Calvin (the real one, so to speak), I would go no farther than Grace Hopper in this picture. There she sits, the only woman in a male-dominated environment, professional and intelligent and focused on her technological specialty.

Hats off to both these grand ladies of Geekdom, past and future!

Nothing new under the sun

Everyone knows that sport fans can get violent in their excitement… there is even a Wikipedia article listing violent spectator incidents in sports. This being an aspect of human nature, it is not surprising that the custom of berating and clobbering the opposite team’s supporters goes back to earlier times. Still, I was quite amused when I saw this fresco in the archeological museum of Naples:

Pompeii amphitheatre violence

This picture, from the wall of a house in Pompeii, depicts a memorable historical event from AD 59, which is described by Tacitus in his Annals (Book XIV, 17):

About the same date, a trivial incident led to a serious affray between the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii, at a gladiatorial show presented by Livineius Regulus … During an exchange of raillery, typical of the petulance of country towns, they resorted to abuse, then to stones, and finally to steel; the superiority lying with the populace of Pompeii, where the show was being exhibited.

And indeed, the fresco shows the agitated fans running inside and around the stadium, with some first victims already on the ground. The actual casualty count was higher by far:

As a result, many of the Nucerians were carried maimed and wounded to the capital, while a very large number mourned the deaths of children or of parents.

The outcome, in fact, was dire for the Pompeiians: the emperor (the infamous Nero) delegated to the senate, and the ruling was that

the Pompeians as a community were debarred from holding any similar assembly for ten years, and the associations which they had formed illegally were dissolved. Livineius and the other fomenters of the outbreak were punished with exile.

Nothing new under the sun…

Image: Wikimedia.