CS 481 - Trends in Computer Science

Week 1: Some history, requirements for mid-term project, first minor projects


This week we discuss some history, some course objectives related to the first major project, and the first minor project for the class. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Evolution of technology
  2. Understanding history to understand the future
  3. Researching technology
  4. Project requirements
  5. First project

One of the points of this course is that things change. Specifically, technology changes. The American Heritage dictionary offers a couple of interesting definitions:

  • Electronic or digital products and systems considered as a group:a store specializing in office technology.
  • Anthropology The body of knowledge available to a society that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials.

The first one is a bit arrogant, isn't it? It assumes we are talking about only one kind of technology that the second definition offers a hint about. There are many kinds of technology that do not relate to "electronic and digital products". Since this class is about trends in computer science, we may be most interested in technologies that relate to electronics, but we should recognize other types, too. Dictionary.com offers another definition that is a bit wider:

  • the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science

This one says that technology is about creating and using things, and that it has effects on parts of life that, historically, were not considered to be involved with technical matters. Is this a new development, or has it always been true?

Technology evolves from one form to another over time as it is imagined, implemented, improved, refined, and, typically, replaced by other technology. Technology is not something that we found one day in a catalog or in a store. It is something that we have always had, in different forms at different times, as soon as we started inventing and using tools. The definition above implies that technology can lead to social innovations. The first farmer who learned to use stick to dig a hole or a trench was creating a new line of technology that made planting easier and more efficient. See the image on the right. That ancient Egyptian is using a tool that beats the heck out of throwing seeds on the ground and hoping that they grow.

Digging sticks led to plows. The image on the right of this paragraph is a type of wooden plow used long ago in Greece. With a plow, you can dig a channel in your land, and plant a lot of seeds quickly.

The iron gang plow in the image on the right, was an improvement over wood, and an improvement over one blade. (A gang plow has more than one blade.) The farmer using that one could plow two furrows at once. We didn't have to wait for the modern age for the big change, however. Having plows at all led to a way to plant enough crops to support larger numbers of people, which led to more people living in one place, which led to cities and nations. The technology of agriculture led to surplus food production. Surplus? Enough food could be produced by a few farmers to feed people who could become specialists in activities other than farming. That led to civilization. Don't just trust me, look it up.

Let's think about another technology that will lead us to more familiar ground. The invention of the abacus (the red beaded thing in the wooden frame) gave us a fast calculator, if you were talented at using it, but it also led to a desire for a device that could do more complicated calculations.

The slide rule came along in the 1700s. (The image on the right shows a Pickett slide rule.) It might be viewed as the product of a more advanced technology and a knowledge of mathematical relations. Slide rules work by the use of logarithms. If you don't know what those are, click the image of the slide rule and read the article I have linked for you. Slide rules were used by scientists and students until the mid 1970s to multiply, divide, find roots, square and cube numbers, and for other purposes. Then something happened, but we'll come back to that in a minute.

Before that time, other kinds of devices were designed and attempts were made to develope them. The mechanical computer has roots in the 1600s. (Blaise Pascal's Calculator is shown in the image on the right.) Pascal's machine couldn't do much by modern standards, but it was remarkable for the 17th century. It used gears to calculate sums and differences, but was never a commercially available product.

About two hundred years after Pascal, several attempts were made to design a general purpose machine by Charles Babbage in the early 1800s. (Click the image on the right to watch a video about Babbage and his inventions.) Babbage's attempts might be seen as an evolution in technology that was not implemented when it was invented, because it was too complicated and too expensive to build.

Instead, mechanical computing was implemented in more limited forms that were more affordable, and therefore more profitable: adding machines and calculators. (Odhner,in the late 1800s, lower left, and Burroughs, in the mid 1900s, lower right.) Babbage's concepts were reflected in the development of electronic computers, which came later.

Odhner Calculator Scottish Burroughs Add-lister

Invention of electronic computing devices started around the time of World War II. There was a military need to create devices that could calculate solutions to ballistic problems rapidly, which led the US Army to sponsor the creation of ENIAC, the first fully electronic computer. Watch the video behind that link, and you will probably agree that what we call a computer was not invented at one time. It is an idea that has been developed over time. It has evolved from a concept into a number of kinds of devices that most people can recognize and use. That evolution of the idea has not stopped. It continues to change in form and in purpose. Technology has always been on path of improvement. Sometimes the improvements have to wait for supporting technology to exist. Babbage could have built his computer if he had secured funding, but he could not have built ENIAC, much less a laptop, because he did not have the necessary technology to make the components to build such a device.

New concepts are theorized, then developed, and combinations of new developments make other developments possible. Everything starts with an idea, but it's the development and implementation of an idea that can change everything for the people who use it. Ideas become technology. When it works and has value, technology is used to create tools and products, which in turn become more available or more useful technology. Using technology changes what we can do and, sometimes, what we believe we are.

Let's go back to that point I told you we would revisit. A slide rule is a fine device. It takes no power to use it, it only takes the skill to manipulate the slide and the cursor (that's what we called the clear part that shows where to read the answer), and the practiced ability to read the answer and figure out where to put a decimal point. I learned to use a slide rule in junior high school (7th grade), and used one my first year in college. That was in 1972. The following year, Texas Instruments marketed the SR-10 and SR-11 calculators. There were other electronic calculators before them, but these were affordable electronic calculators that would give you an answer with no need to figure out the decimal point placement, and would do it with more degrees of precision than you would be able to read on a slide rule. They cost more than a slide rule, but anyone could use one. A good slide rule could do more, but most people only used a few functions of their slide rules, and an SR-11 had those. And that made calculators consumer electronics, not business machines, which changed everything.

We live in an age that has technology that would seem miraculous, not just to our remote ancestors, but to our grandparents. People have probably always felt this way about the innovations they are enjoying, but we are on a curve of technological improvement that is becoming steeper. Consider this list of inventions and inventors. Take a look at how long ago some concepts were theorized, and how long it took to make a technology that used them. Then consider how long it has taken to create and improve non-electronic devices that you use every day. Then think about how many improvements you have seen in electronic devices over your life, and over the last ten years.

In the discussion above, I have tried to give you some perspective on technology and its place in history. One of the goals of this course is to guide you in technical research to answer some basic questions about technology, education, and making choices about the technology we use in our jobs and our lives. Let's consider some of the essential questions that go with this course. For the first two assignments, we will use the material above, and consider history. This will be practice, in a sense, for the mid-term project which will be due in week five. It has the following requirements:

Explore the evolution of a specific technology over time. Discuss the following questions:

  1. What was the intent of the original design, what problem was the technology created to solve?
  2. What human factors contributed to the evolution of the technology over time?
  3. Compare and contrast the technology's original and current state.
  4. Predict future changes based upon potential future uses and adaptations.

Report on the information you learned about the technology in a written paper. Be sure to follow APA format. Submit your paper through the View/Assignment link.