Scientists are not psychics

I was shown this picture recently:

Computers in 2004

(click for larger picture in new window)

It’s from a 1954 Popular Mechanics magazine. Some scientists at RAND made a model of what they predicted a home computer would look like 50 years later.

Apparently that’s not true. It’s from a submarine. That explains the steering wheels. My friends and I had gotten to the point of hypothesizing that everybody in the future had a houseboat. But if you turn both the wheels the same way you flip the boat.

From now on, I vow to check snopes.

correction: it’s from a submarine.

The model is the size of a kitchen. And notice, there are two concentric steering wheels, and many gauges. To me, in the year 2008 it is very unclear what the gauges are for. Pressure in the vaccuum tubes possibly? And the steering wheels?

Also note the caption: “With Teletype interface and the Fortran language the computer will be easy to use.” We’ve come a long way.

Now, think about trying to predict another fifty years into the future? What will technology be like then? There are developments of wearable computing and computers on contact lenses. But that is technology we have. What about what we don’t have? That’s what made the prediction so far off in the 50’s. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to predict as-yet uninvented technology.

P.S. if the picture doesn’t link properly that’s because I have trouble with computers, despite the ease of use of teletype interface and Fortran language

P.P.S. Someday I’ll figure out how to post things properly

P.P.P.S Glad that people catch my credulity

P.P.P.P.S I passed Quals


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  1. I only took one computer class in college. It was in the FORTRAN language, by the way.

    That was 28 years ago, which doesn't seem long ago to me, but we were using so-called IBM cards and a key-punch machine to enter data. There was no screen or monitor of any kind.

    The key punch machine was not connected to the computer itself; it just punched the holes in the card to represent a line of insturction to the computer. We then had to physically carry the stack of cards over to a tray and feed them through a device so the computer could read them, then we waked over to a printer to get a read-out on big "green bar" paper.

    If a typo needed to be corrected, you had to go back the the key punch and creat a new physical card and feed the whole stack through the machine.

  2. I was using Fortran just 3 or 4 years ago. It's not used in industry very much, but it's still highly used in scientific computing. I was using it in a multiprocessing course, using OpenMP to perform multi-threading.

  3. Check Wikipedia entry on Hoaxes also.

    As far as the "steering wheels" go. Open the big one steam goes through the turbine front ways causing the screw to turn in the forward direction. Open the little one steam goes through the turbine back ways causing the screw to backwards.

  4. I think I fixed it. I'm not sure why it wasn't displaying properly but I saved it as text only in my word processor and then pasted it back into the edit window and it seems to be displaying properly now. I hope I didn't inadvertantly change anything else in the post.

  5. This was an entry in a Fark photoshop contest. The printer, man and television screen in the upper right hand corner are added. It's a museum exhibit of submarine controls, and the printer is located where the usual explanatory note is supposed to be. For a vision of home computing, 1969-style, check this one out:

    It is the Honeywell 316, also known as the 'Kitchen Computer'. This one isn't photoshoped :)

  6. Yeah, concerning the "predicting the future" thing, I guess one of the problems is the fact we're unable to imagine what kind of needs may arise, and the technical solutions that we will come up to deal with them.

    For starters, the concept of having everyone walking around with their personal portable phone would've seemed like an odd idea 50 years ago. Apart from not looking like a feasible idea, the need for such a device wouldn't have been obvious, and on top of that, what other things you would/could use it for apart from calling someone wouldn't even have entered their minds.

    Another good example of that would be IP-addresses. Back when the internet just started, they only had a one byte IP range. Pretty soon, they realized 255 addresses wasn't going to be enough, so they multiplied it by adding a second byte to get some 65 thousand addresses. But soon, that wasn't enough either, so they added a third, and eventually a fourth byte, which is where we are now, with theoretically 4'228'250'625 unique IP-addresses. Barely as far back as the 80s, people couldn't imagine that 4 billion addresses would ever possibly turn out not to be enough. But the internet is once again running out of IP-addresses. So a number of temporary "fixes" have been found to cope for now (for example, your ISP has a range of addresses which it hands out only to those computers who are connected, rather than giving one to every computer).

    So now, with the planned IPv6, they've quadrupled the number of bytes to 16, giving you a potential range of 255^16 (or about 3[followed by 38 zeroes] addresses, I don't even know how to pronounce that number). And I'm sure some people are already thinking right now that that's just waaay more than we'll ever need. Well, we'll see in 30 years or so …

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