Here is something that one doesn't get to say very often: this is perhaps the most important menu in the history of computing1. And if there's another menu out there of the same or greater significance, then I offer that this is perhaps the most important menu tassel in the history of computation--that seems safer.
In the history of odd bits of historic computeriana ephemera, this tassle joins the ranks of other one-percenters, like this: the world's first portable computer had a gun rack. This was hardly a laptop though it was portable, and very well lived up to its Herman Melville-inspired acronym: MOBIDIC.
The Mobile Digital Computer was intended to be a transistorized van-mounted computer used to store and route data as part of the U.S. Army’s Fieldata system. The machine was indeed built and deployed by 1959–as were the MOBIDIC A,B,C,D,E and 7a by the early 1960's–and it was a successful component, even though the overall network was not successful. Fieldata was supposed to integrate all manner of information and distribute it to battlefield recipients. My friend (Dr.) Carl Hammer (1914-1904), who I knew from being in the neighborhood in Georgetown, was a delightful man who had long and significant history in the development of the modern computer. He told me one afternoon–stopping in to visit on his constitutional–in his sly and amusing way about working on the MOBIDIC while he was at Sylvania. (He had just finished heading up Remington Rand’s UNIVAC European Division before going to Sylvania.) Anyway he started his story about the MOBIDIC by telling me that it was the world’s first portable computer (sitting in a 42-foot-long semitrailer) and that it had gun racks. The reason for the gun racks was simple–if something was made by the U.S. Army, and it had wheels, then it had to have a gun rack. Case closed.
Now, getting back to the subject at hand: this is the luncheon menu for the dedication of the NORC "Calculator" (the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator) a computer which was constructed principally with IBM parts and built at the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia. The NORC was the world's first supercomputer, and the most powerful computer on the planet for about ten years (from 1954 to 1963, until it was surpassed by Seymour Cray's CDC 6600 in 1964).
The NORC was an astonishing accomplishment, difficult to summarize simply, really, though a very good example is that provided by Dr. Paul Herget, the director of the Cincinnati Observatory. Dr,. Herget used the NORC in 1956 to make precise calculations of the earths orbit for the 1920-2000 period. Dr. Herget said: "We used nine hours of running time and completed more computations than had ever before been done at one time in the history of astronomy.'"
Outside of celebrating the accomplishment of the NORC, the luncheon was also important for the remarks of the principal speaker, John von Neumann. Von Neumann of course was perhaps the most expansive mind of the century--a thinker of phenomenal proportions and the father of the modern computer. His brain was impossibly big.
During the luncheon von Neumann made prescient and extraordinarily wide remarks on the future utility of the computer. Some of the highlights (from the entire address, included below):
--it is now "practical and feasible" to forecast, with the NORC, the weather for an entire hemisphere thirty or sixty days ahead
--calculation of the tidal motions of all the oceans, the marginal movements near the continents as well as the main motions of the oceans
--the hydrodynamics of the earth's fluid core
--"In the statistical field, dealing with matters which are not wholly mechanical, such as troop operations and logistic operations which involve purely accidental factors like the prevailing weather during the operation, command decisions which have not yet been officially made can be stipulated and various solutions for various alternatives calculated. This has been done before on a minor scale but it takes too long to do on a large scale. "In this field the importance of NORC is enormous..."
--in the first four hours of operations the NORC performed more work than any calculator of ten years ago has performed in its entire lifetime. He termed this performance "completely fantastic; I doubt if it has ever been done before."
The last section of von Neumann's comments:
"The last thing, which is very important, is said in fewer words, but I think that it is none the less important. And it is this: In planning new computing machines, in fact, in planning anything new, in trying to enlarge the domain of parameters with which one can work, it is of course customary and very proper that one should consider what the demand is, what the price is, whether it will be more profitable to do it in a bold way than in a cautious way, and so on. This type of consideration is necessary -- the world would very quickly go to pieces if these rules were not observed in 99 cases out of a hundred.
"It is terribly important that there should however be one piece in a hundred where it is done differently.
"And that one uses the definition which Dr. Haven (?) pointed out 20 minutes ago, namely to occasionally do what the U. S. Navy did in this case and what IBM accepted in this case: to write a specification essentially to build the most powerful machine that is possible in this day with the present state of the art. I just hope that this will be repeated very soon and will never be forgotten. http://ftp.arl.mil/~mike/comphist/54nord/
It may be the last statement that is the most important--pressing those of the present and future to perform
The NORC group caption from the IBM Archive website:
"At the NORC dedication in Watson Lab, 2 December 1954: IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Rear Admiral E.A. Solomons (Executive Office, Secretary of the Navy), Jeannette Watson (Mrs. Watson Senior), Columbia Professor Wallace Eckert, John von Neumann, Captain C.K. Bergin (Director, R&D, Bureau of Ordnance, Dept of the Navy), Rear Admiral C.G. Warfield (Executive Office, Secretary of the Navy)." The Navy is happy here because they wound up with the computer at Dahlgren. Von Neumann was happy because he got to play von Neumann his whole life long.
The IBM press release for the NORC included the following summary of the event and the von Neumann address:
NORC Press release//The following is the text of a December 2, 1954 IBM press release regarding the first public demonstration of NORC and its official "delivery" to the U.S. Navy.
The first public demonstration of NORC (Naval Ordnance Research Calculator), fastest and largest capacity electronic calculator in existence, which has been built by International Business Machines Corporation for the Bureau of Ordnance, U.S. Navy, was conducted today at the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University in the presence of approximately 150 representatives of the U.S. Navy and other Government departments, education and scientific research institutions and industrial companies. The machine was accepted on behalf of the Bureau of Ordnance by Captain C. K. Bergin, USN, Assistant Chief of research and development of the Bureau, from Thomas J. Watson, Jr., president of IBM.
At a luncheon following the demonstration, Professor John Von Neumann, of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, and an appointee to the Atomic Energy Commission, discussed possible uses for the NORC other than for the immediate problems of the Bureau of Ordnance, instancing the field of geophysics as having great possibilities.
It is now "practical and feasible" to forecast, with the NORC, the weather for an entire hemisphere thirty or sixty days ahead, by calculations occupying perhaps 24 hours, with results about as good as those obtained by an experienced subjective weather forecaster, "which are very good." Calculations similar to those now made, forecasting weather over the area of the United States for 24 hours in advance, could be made on the NORC in perhaps half a minute, he stated.
Complete calculation of the tidal motions of all the oceans, the marginal movements near the continents as well as the main motions of the oceans, is now, with the NORC, a matter of days and therefore feasible. He also declared that calculation of the hydrodynamics of the earth's fluid core, the movements of which are responsible for the main phenomena of terrestrial magnetism, "becomes probably accessible for the first time."
In the statistical field, dealing with matters which are not wholly mechanical, such as troop operations and logistic operations which involve purely accidental factors like the prevailing weather during the operation, command decisions which have not yet been officially made can be stipulated and various solutions for various alternatives calculated. This has been done before on a minor scale but it takes too long to do on a large scale. "In this field the importance of NORC is enormous," Dr. Von Neumann said.
He concluded by pointing out that the NORC was assembled less than two months ago and put on test less than two weeks ago, yet in a test yesterday (Wednesday. Dec. 1) it ran for four hours without an error, doing in this period more work than any calculator of ten years ago has performed in its entire lifetime. He termed this performance "completely fantastic; I doubt if it has ever been done before."
Dr. Grayson L. Kirk, president of Columbia University, stated that during the test period the NORC will be available to the University for important research projects, particularly in the field of nuclear physics, before it is shipped to the Naval Proving Ground, Dahlgren, Va. to be installed in the Computation Laboratory already established there.