Thursday, June 25, 2015

BPN 1709: A catalogue of the world

Not many people ever get the task to produce a catalogue of the world. Depending on the format of the reference work, only editors of a new encyclopaedia might be lucky. Such an encyclopaedia should be a picture of the contemporary world and not a reference book filled with Greek and Roman mythological figures. But how do you produce such a catalogue and put it in order? A conversation with a librarian might point you to classifications like the Dewey Decimal Code (DDC) or the Universal Decimal Code (UDC). The DDC and the UDC both consisted of 9 comprehensive categories. With the UDC you could accommodated a document in a category of a document, disclosing also information about the contents of the document by thematic keywords. Within these categories, the lemmas for future articles could be filled in, creating a picture of the different disciplines and eventually developing a picture of the world.

The UDC classification scheme was developed by Paul Otlet 1868-1944). This idealistic Belgian spent his whole life working on cataloguing the world, believing that the more you classified, the better the world would become. Apart from the classification scheme, he designed also index cards of 12 by 7 cm, on which a classification could be written. As the UDC system allowed more keywords links could be established interconnecting these thematic keywords. In this way a catalogue of the world would be created and a basis for an information society. Eventually this catalogue would result in the Universal Book, the book of source crowded, and global knowledge. In 1934 Paul Otlet had built a catalogue of some 12 million index cards which with the support of the Belgian king were housed in the exhibition buildings of the Cinquantenaire in Brussels.   

Apart from the catalogue the venue also serves as a museum of knowledge, the Mundaneum. It demonstrated Otlet’s dream of the knowledge society and how the index cards eventually could be linked together electronically. The museum contained also a room with the latest microfilm equipment and a telegraph room. In the Second World War the collection of index cards and museum collection were destroyed.

Predator of Big Data
Paul Otlet can be seen as a pioneer of the knowledge society. Internet he has never known, but he was certainly contributed to it. Although Americans always ascribe the birth of the concept hypertext to Ted Nelson (hypermedia) and Vannevar Bush, Otlet constructed a mechanical retrieval system in 1934 complete with wheels and hooks which brought the relevant tags/links to the surface. Actually Otlet’s catalogue was Google on paper. His 12 million index cards can be seen as a paper predator of Big Data. 

Reopening Mundaneum
Today (25.06.2015) the Mundaneum reopens in Bergen / Mons (Belgium) with the exhibition Mapping Knowledge. The reopening is in the framework of Mons, European Capital of Culture and has received support by Google.

In 2014 there is a very readable book about Paul Otlet was published under the title Cataloging the world, Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, written by Alex Wright and published as a printed book and as an e-book by Oxford University Press (ISBN 978 -0-19-993141-5).

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

BPN 1708: The Dutch computer pioneers (M/F)

Recently a Delft University affiliated company received a grant of 135 million euros for the development of a new generation of computers, quantum computers. It can be seen as a renaissance of the computer building at Dutch universities and scientific institutions.

A movie about the computer earliest construction in the Netherlands is now on YouTube. The film is produced by Google and realized in collaboration with the CWI, the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam. The Dutch film has been produced with substantive contributions from science historian Gerard Alberts (UvA), Paul Klint, Research Fellow at the CWI, and computer pioneers Gerrit Blaauw, Dirk Dekker and Jaap Zonneveld. The film is available through the Google Computing Heritage Youtube channel, where Google already shows several web films produced with the aim to provide the European information technology heritage to a wider audience and to acknowledge the computer pioneers of the past.

Although the Netherlands had a company like Philips with an electronic background, the first Dutch computers came from the university. From 1952 onwards, not only scientists studied computers, but they began to develop them. Universities and scientific institutions even started to building them.

(c) ISSG

The first computer in the Netherlands was the ARRA I (Auto Relay Calculator Amsterdam). It was built in Amsterdam by the Mathematical Centre, now named CWI. It was a machine which processed with relays, switches operated by solenoids. In practice, the machine was not really useful. During the presentation on June 21, 1952 the machine was shown in the presence of the Amsterdam Mayor d'Ailly and Minister for Education, Arts and Sciences FJ Th. Rutten. The device had been given the assignment to present the a table of random numbers. It did produce it during the demonstration, but then the computer gave up. Its successor, the ARRA II, was a success. The computer contained radio tubes and transistors and core memory. This computer successfully carried out calculations for the Fokker aircraft factory and Delft Hydraulics. The ARRA I nor the ARRA II have been preserved. From 1995 more universities and scientific institutes such as the TU Delft and TNO started to build computers and from 1958 an industry started to spin out from the academic field with the company Electrologica, which was later acquired by Philips.

The movie is interesting as it focusses attention on hardware. Attention is also paid to the Dutch computer pioneers, not just the male pioneers. Striking is  the story of the computer women. In the analogue era smart girls were recruited from high schools to solve computational problems. In the computer age, these women were trained as programmers.