Tag Archives: History of Computing

What was the state of AI in Europe almost 70 years ago?

When it comes to the history of Artificial Intelligence (AI), even a simple Internet search will tell you that the defining event was “The Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence“, a summer workshop in 1956, held in Dartmouth College, United States. What is less known is the fact that, 5 years before Dartmouth, USA, there was a conference in Europe, back in 1951. The conference in Paris was “Les machines à calculer et la pensée humaine” (Calculating machines and human thinking). This can be easily considered the earliest major conference on Artificial Intelligence. Supported by the Rockefeller foundation, its participant list included the intellectual giants of the field, such as Warren Sturgis McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, Maurice Vincent Wilkes, and others.

The organizer of the conference, Louis Couffignal, was also mathematician and cybernetics pioneer, who had already published a book titled “Les machines à calculer. Leurs principes. Leur évolution.” in 1933 (Calculating machines. Their principles. Their evolution.) Another highlight from the conference was El Ajedrecista (The Chess Player), designed by Spanish civil engineer and mathematician Leonardo Torres y Quevedo. There was also a presentation based on practical experiences with the Z4 computer, designed by Konrad Zuse, and operated in ETH Zurich. The presenter was none other than Eduard Stiefel, inventor of the conjugate gradient method, among other things.

The field of AI has come a long way since 1951, and it is safe to say it’s going to penetrate into more aspects of our lives and technologies. It’s also safe to say that like many technological and scientific endeavors, progress in AI is the result of many bright minds in many different countries, and generally USA and UK are regarded as the places that contributed a lot. But it’s also important to recognize the lesser known facts such as this Paris conference in 1951, and realize the strong tradition in Europe: not only the academic, research and development track, but also the strong industrial and business tracks. Historical artifacts in languages other than English necessarily mean less recognition, but they should be a reason to cherish the diversity and variety. I believe all of these aspects combined should guide Europe in its quest for advancing the state of the art in AI, both in terms of software, hardware, and combined systems.

This article is heavily based on and inspired by the following article by Herbert Bruderer, a retired lecturer in didactics of computer science at ETH Zürich: “The Birthplace of Artificial Intelligence?

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Posted by on July 11, 2019 in Math, Programlama, Science


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A visit to the largest computer museum in the world: The Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum

It all started more than seven years ago, when I read a short article in January, 2010 issue of Communications of the ACM, titled “Great Computing Museums of the World (Part One)“.

“The Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum (HNF; in Paderborn, Germany, is the world’s largest computer museum. The museum, which is also an established conference center, showcases the history of information technology—beginning with cuneiform writing and going right through to the latest developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and ubiquitous computing.

The multimedia journey through time takes visitors through 5,000 years of history, starting with the origins of numbers and writing in Mesopotamia in 3000 B.C. and covering the entire cultural history of writing, calculating, and communications. Alongside typewriters and calculating machines, the exhibition shows punched card systems, a fully functioning automatic telephone exchange system from the 1950s, components from the earliest computer (which filled a whole room), over 700 pocket calculators, and the first PCs. Work environments from different centuries are also staged in the exhibition.

The exhibition highlights include fully functioning replicas of the Leibniz calculating machine and the Hollerith tabulating machine, a Thomas Arithmometer dating from 1850, a Jacquard loom operated with punched tape, components of the ENIAC from 1945, the on-board computer from the Gemini space capsule, the Apple 1, a LEGO Turing machine, and Europe’s largest collection of cipher machines. One of the current attractions at HNF is the world’s most famous automaton: Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess playing machine, the Chess Turk, which dates from the 18th century.”

I was more than impressed, and wanted to visit Paderborn to see the world’s largest computer museum. I knew it was just a few hours away by car from Antwerp, but I’ve always postponed going there for various reasons. I didn’t want there to go alone, and I knew I needed someone like-minded enough to accompany me on this “nerdy” journey. Finally, last week, I and a physicist / data scientist friend of mine decided to go there, notwithstanding the weather conditions, and very snowy German highways.

I think this is the only museum where digital relics from my childhood and youth (1980s and 1990s) are considered as museum-worthy as replicas of 5000 year old Sumerian tablets! 🙂 It was pure joy and fascination to visit the halls of the museum, and be guided by very thematic and knowledgeable, gentle robots. One of them, Victoria, was a sight to be seen! The other one was also great, and you can watch “him” in action:

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Posted by on December 17, 2017 in General, Science



Old Computers: A Trip Down the Memory Lane and History of Computing

A few weeks ago I went to the computer science building of KU Leuven for a Haskell meet-up. I was surprised to see a lot of very old computers beautifully put on an exhibition. It felt like a time travel in the history of computing. I captured a few of them using the camera of my smartphone, trying to imagine what the pioneers of computing back then would’ve thought if they had seen this smartphone in action (full resolution photos of these and many others are available in my Flickr album.)

Some of the computers were happily churning and crunching data long before I was born such as this one:


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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Programlama


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