Only 3 computers will be needed...

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Mark Brader

Jul 10, 1985, 6:23:15 PM7/10/85
Some time ago, somebody asked who it was that said to whom that in
their opinion only X computers would ever be needed and no more need
be built. I never saw any reasonably authoritative followups, but I
was away for most of May, and I think the item was posted before that.
So please excuse me if this is a duplicate, or not in the same group
as the original query.

Anyway, my source is an article by Lord Bowden (note for Americans:
"Lord" is a title, not a name). He's now (or was recently) with the
University of Manchester, and was formerly a British cabinet minister
in their Dept. of Education and Science. The article is called "The
Language of Computers", and can be found in American Scientist vol 58
(1970) pp 43-53, or in the anthology Mathematics: People, Problems,
Results, ed. by Douglas M. Campbell and John C. Higgins, pub. by
Wadsworth International (1984), vol 3 pp 2-14.

Lord Bowden writes:

# I joined Ferranti in 1950. They had nearly finished building the
# first digital computer ever to be made by a commercial firm in England
# and they asked me to see if it would be possible to manufacture such
# machines and sell them at a profit. Our machine could do simple
# arithmetic a thousand times as fast as a man with an adding machine,
# but it was not at all obvious that anyone would be prepared to pay a
# hundred thousand pounds or so for it. It wasn't as reliable as we
# could have liked it to be; it absorbed information slowly by reading
# teleprinter ticker tape, and it could only print out its answers digit
# by digit. ...

# I must remind you that this was in the days before IBM. I went to
# see Professor Douglas Hartree, who had built the first differential
# analyzers in England and had more experience in using these very
# specialized computers than anyone else. He told me that, in his
# opinion, all the calculations that would ever be needed in this country
# could be done on the three digital computers which were then being
# built -- one in Cambridge, one in Teddington, and one in Manchester.
# No one else, he said, would ever need machines of the own, or would
# be able to afford to buy them. He added that the machines were
# exceedingly difficult to use, and could not be trusted to anyone who
# was not a professional mathematician, and he advised Ferranti to get
# out of the business and abandon the idea of selling any more of them.

# It is amazing how completely wrong a great man can be. ... Hartree
# used to tell this story against himself as long as he lived, but I
# want to emphasize that in 1951 it was much harder to see into the
# crystal ball than you might think. Ferranti needed a new product, and
# they were more hopeful than Professor Hartree ...

There's more good stuff in the article too. Since Toronto is mentioned
I'll include one more quotation:

# I believe that I was the first person who ever sold an electronic
# digital computer on the commercial market. It went to Toronto in 1951,
# and the first job it tackled was to study the flow of the St. Lawrence
# River thought the fragmented channels of the Thousand Islands. These
# calculations had to be done before the seaway could be built. ... Our
# machine did the work in three months. The Canadians told us that the
# machine had paid for itself several times over by doing this one
# calculation so quickly.

Posted by Mark Brader, Toronto.

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