One Google query = one Apollo program’s worth of computing – Boing Boing

19 09 2012

As a kid in the mid 70’s, I remember being blown away by the early electronic calculators. The white Sinclair with red “bubble” LEDs was a little freaky. I even vaguely recall it used reverse-Polish (that’s for the “proper” geeks out there in blogland), but I could be wrong.

Wikipedia: Sinclair Scientific, circa 1974

A mere couple of years later, I owned my own calculator – a Casio fx-39, that I still possess.

Vintage Technology: fx-39

Put a few nerdy teenage boys on a bus together, and they soon figure out that despite it having 2 less digits in its display than the more expensive model (fx-120 if you’re THAT much of a geek), it still calculated them. So, subtract the 8 visible digits from the answer, and it would give you the extra 2 significant hidden digits.

Yeah, you’re quite right, dear reader… who the hell cares?! Perhaps it’s why teenage boys from grammar schools don’t do so well with girls…

Anyway, all this just to say that in less than 10 years, the average schoolboy was already walking around with more computing power in his satchel than Neil Armstrong had at his disposal to go to the moon! According to this article on Boing Boing, those annoying musical greeting cards each probably have more processing power in them than the entire planet did when Sputnik was launched!

I actually find it less surprising that a Google search uses more processing power than Apollo 11 had though. There’s many extra powers of 10 been added to the digital data held on the planet now than was available in 1969.

It did remind me though of a trip I took to the Smithsonian in DC. I went to the Air and Space museum. Well worth a visit if you’re in the ‘hood. On display was the guidance system out of a Minuteman nuclear missile. All beefy and manly looking with over-engineered cable connectors and rivets. Of course this appealed to the testosterone in me, and the fact I was a software engineer at the time. I had personally rejected the opportunity of writing software for the more modern versions of such things, but I still got a buzz from seeing it up close. The “cool” just didn’t outweigh what these things were designed to do.

Smithsonian: Minuteman Guidance System

Anyway, the thing that turned my blood cold was that this electronic circuit… the one that was responsible for steering a nuclear warhead to the right postal code… was “wire-wrapped”. For the uninitiated amongst you – wire wrap is used these days for quickly knocking together a prototype before you commit a circuit to mass-production and solder.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wire_wrap

Wikipedia: wire-wrap

Back in the day, it was also used for production. As you might infer from the Wikipedia photo above, they’re not exactly immune to being shaken and rattled about. Like say… on the end of a missile!

On the other hand, the Russian space suit on display showed the wooden door through which the cosmonaut entered in the back.

C’mon… would I lie to you?! OK – just a little…

Smithsonian:  Krechet Soviet Moon Suit

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One response

22 09 2012
lanceleuven

Fascinating stuff.

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