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.

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