Category Archives: Tech History

A Flash in the Pan

Transcript of podcast below.

In the last week of November 2015 Adobe pronounced the last rites over Adobe Flash, and no-one apparently noticed. In it’s day Flash was a revolutionary product but the Flash revolution got too big, too fast for anyone to control it.

Go back 10 years and you’d find that Flash powered YouTube, BBC’s then revolutionary iPlayer and a multitude of media heavy web sites. At the time Adobe made the bold claim, disputed by competitors, that Flash was responsible for 75% of all video content on the web. You don’t get much bigger than that.

Of course you can have too much of a good thing and that was certainly the case with Adobe’s Flash. It felt like everyone was using Flash to do the daftest of things, and at times, entirely inappropriate stuff that shouldn’t have made it onto any web site. Then again that’s the nature of the Internet, if it can be done, it will be done and done to death, and sometimes beyond that point too.

Such was the success of Adobe Flash that pretty much every computer system had to have it installed; otherwise large chunks of web content simply weren’t visible. The problem was that Flash was present on so many devices, in so many different variations and versions that hackers began to pay a lot of attention to its vulnerabilities. Their attention paid off, as they found a rich vein of exploitable computers out there that were running vulnerable versions of Flash.

Before anyone could say “quick as a flash” large numbers of computers were infected with computer viruses that exploited Flash vulnerabilities and the number of viruses that used Flash to exploit computers began to snowball. Internet users were left confused, they needed this software to watch and interact with media centric sites, but were becoming increasingly nervous about security problems associated with running Flash.

Something had to give, or rather something had to be taken away. Steve Jobs, the then Chief Executive of Apple Computer published a letter entitled “Thoughts on Flash”, where he bluntly stated that Flash was never going to appear on another Apple product. Given Apple’s share of the device market, it was the beginning of the end. It was a matter of a few years before a significant number of manufacturers followed suit, and the writing was on the wall – in animated letters – for Flash.

It goes to show that being successful – Internet successful – can come at a heavy price. In it’s day Adobe Flash was the King, Queen and Ace for any media web site, today it’s HTML5 and a basket of other products. Perhaps the moral of the tale is that no piece of software should attempt to be all things to all people, and any effort to do so will ultimately cause the product to fail.

A Voyager of Discovery

Around 38 years ago NASA launched a space probe called Voyager in 1977, before most students, and quite a few staff at UCS, were born. I’ll come back to the significance of that point later.

The original concept of Voyager was to take advantage of an alignment of the planets in the solar system, which takes place once every 175 years. Voyager and a sister vessel would fly a pre-planned path in order to survey the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. Voyager 2 was intended to survey most of the planets, whilst Voyager 1 was intended to survey one of Saturn’s moons, Titan.

Both spacecraft completed their original missions extremely successfully, much to the delight of NASA engineers and scientists. The Voyager probes sent back quite astonishing pictures of the planets in our solar system, at a level of detail that people had never been able to capture before. But the real surprise hasn’t been the pictures and unparalleled information that’s been gained, it’s how long both probes have lasted.

NASA engineers had projected an expected lifetime for both probes at around 5 years. They’d planned for the long term though, fitting plutonium batteries, and as robust a computer control and management system as they could engineer. Even with the most robust engineering they could produce, no-one expected the probes to last as long as they did, and because they’ve lasted so long they’ve run into a few new problems, that they’d never envisaged.

You see 38 years ago programmers created the management system for Voyager using a fairly arcane programming language, by modern standards. NASA is finding it quite challenging to find software engineers who want to maintain Voyager with such an old language, and on such ancient (by modern standards) computer hardware. The problem arose when the last of the original programming team retired. I guess he deserved to at the grand age of 80.

Voyager might be a unique example of the kind of problems older technology can throw up, but the same parallels exist in modern businesses, who routinely spend millions of pounds to keep their systems up to date, lest they end up as old as Voyagers.

You see whilst technology marches on, there’s a hidden cost: you’ve got to keep it up to date, or you’ll end up losing control over the data, information or system simply because of its age.

A Piece of Cake

Transcript of podcast below:

What’s the connection between cakes and supercomputers? To answer the question we need to go back to 1947.

In 1947 J Lyons and Co were a huge British catering company, feeding the nation with cakes, bread, pies, coffee, ice cream and tea. They had a problem though: their accountants estimated that they only made a quarter of a penny on every meal, or cake, sold. How could they make their business more profitable?

In search of an answer Lyons dispatched two senior managers to America to investigate a new phenomenon: the computer. They came back from their trip convinced that Lyons needed a computer of their own. Back then all computers were built by hand, as one off items.

To obtain a computer of their own Lyons approached Cambridge University and agreed to fund the completion of a computer project called “EDSAC”, for the princely sum of £3,000. If the project was a success, Lyons planned to buy and commission a similar model for their business. After some trials at Cambridge, Lyons was convinced they were onto a winner and commissioned an EDSAC clone, which they dubbed “Leo”.

They set Leo to work in their head office. Its principal job was to collate orders from their customers, and work out the manufacturing schedule. The boost to efficiency was so great that Leo was soon put to work calculating payroll and eventually inventory management.

Lyons started renting computer time to other companies, including Ford motor company and they ended up spinning off a new computer business. Sadly for Lyons making cakes and computers didn’t mix as well as they could have done, and something had to give. The fledgling computer business was eventually sold off, presumably with a free bag of Lyons cakes to tempt bidders.

The story didn’t end there though, the Lyon’s computer business was bought up by the English Electric Company, who in turn became part of the ICL conglomerate which eventually acquired by the Japanese computer giant Fujitsu.

If you stood one of Fujitsu’s super computers alongside Leo it would be like comparing Stone Age man to modern man. Where once Leo calculated payroll and cake orders, Fujitsu’s supercomputers churn out gene sequences, weather predictions and render movies. In fact the number of tasks that computers aren’t involved in is becoming vanishingly small.

In the end what drove the evolution of computers was simple: business competition. When once upon a time Lyons owned a computer, and rented it to others, now almost every business owns one or more computers, ranging from the PC, all the way up to the high performance computer arrays.

All of these computes are bent to one aim: efficiency and ultimately profit and it’s worth bearing in mind that a significant slice of UK computing history started, with just a piece of cake.

Crystallising an Idea

Transcript of podcast below.

What’s the connection between an alleged Czech spy, a botanical physiologist and a British Chemist? To unravel this mystery we’re going to have to travel back to 1888.

Friedrich Reinitzer was looking into the chemical properties of cholesteryl benzoate. He noted a peculiar phenomenon, in that this particular compound has two apparent melting points. The first melting point occurred at 145.5 degrees Celsius, where the solid would melt into a cloudy liquid. Very interestingly at 178.5 degrees Celsius the liquid melts again and suddenly goes clear.

Reinitzer published a paper about this phenomenon and then moved on, never looking further at the extraordinary phenomenon that he’d observed. Whilst other scientists took up an interest in the area, progress was slow and incremental.

In fact it wasn’t until 1962 that the first English text was published on the subject, a mere 74 years after their initial discovery in Germany. The book was entitled the “Molecular Structure and the Properties of Liquid Crystals”, and was authored by George William Gray, a researcher at the university of Hull.

However without any practical application, mainly due to the high temperatures at which liquid crystals exhibited their unique properties, they remained a curiosity and even George Gray had to give up research into the subject, due to lack of funding. He moved on to studying the cell walls of bacteria.

Now that could have been the end of practical research into liquid crystals, if it wasn’t for the intervention of a British politician. John Stonehouse, British minister for technology in 1968 (and alleged Czech Spy on the side), who was leading a ministry of defence initiative to replace cumbersome and expensive cathode ray tube displays, with something radically different: a flat screen.  The MOD scientists thought that liquid crystals were the ideal candidate for such a display – but due to the high operating temperatures required, they couldn’t see a practical answer to the problem.

In search of outside assistance, they awarded a research contract to the University of Hull and George William Grey. With renewed funding into an area he was a world expert in, he hired two researchers, Ken Harrison and John Nash, to crack the high temperature conundrum. Within a few years they solved problem, through the discovery and synthesis of cyanobiphenyls, which worked at room temperature.

George Grey’s discovery ushered in a revolution in the way that displays could be made, and the form factors that they can take. The cathode ray tube, like the thermionic valve before it, was gently pushed into retirement as liquid crystal displays allowed manufacturers to make flat, energy efficient, screens that we’re so used to using today.

All of that is thanks to the strange connection between a Czech spy, a botanical physiologist and a British Chemist, and the small matter of 80 years continual scientific research into the subject. As they say it takes decades to become an overnight success.

The Humble Keyboard

Transcript of podcast below:

Sometime between 1440 and 1450 a man by the name of Johanes Gutenberg invented the printing press and started a revolution. Over the centuries books became more common, languages standardised, knowledge spread more widely.

On the other hand personal communication was still the domain of the hand written letter. In 1440 if you knew how to write, and not that many people did, you’d have had to put quill to parchment, then have someone deliver your missive by hand. There was no postal service, no guarantee of delivery and no guarantees that the recipient could read your hand writing. It could take months for a simple communication exchange, by letter, to take place.

In the 21st century keyboards and word processors are ubiquitous, we type rather than write by hand, we communicate using email, messenger, and social media. We all know how to read and write, and assume that anyone is instantly available to communicate with.

The foundation of this revolution is the humble keyboard, first seen on typewriters in the 19th century. At the time typewriters were expensive, costing as much as a standard computer does these days, and worked by mechanical action. If you wanted to make a copy of a letter, or document, you had to use carbon paper.

The keyboard as standard method of getting words out of your head and onto the screen has lasted, with some adaptations for the computer age, for nearly a hundred and fifty years. We have a man called Christopher Sholes to thank for the standard keyboard we now use, and he first produced one way back in 1872.

Oddly enough the QWERTY layout, named after the keys on the top left of any keyboard, was designed to be difficult to type on. Why make typing difficult? Well at the time typewriters were mechanical affairs and they’d jam if adjacent letters were pressed, so Christopher Sholes arranged the keys to ensure that commonly used letters were spaced as far apart as he could get them.

Whilst Mr Sholes thought that he’d produced a difficult to use keyboard a U.S General Services Administration study, conducted in 1953, concluded that speed of typing was roughly similar regardless of the layout of the keyboard used.

We still use the QWERTY keyboard today, it’s original purpose having faded long ago. Oddly enough in a world where governments love to standardise, ratify and wrap things in red tape, the humble keyboard isn’t subject to any standards at all but it has become the UK English standard just because it was around for longer than any of us have been alive.