Abstract- David Link

Memory for Love Letters
Computer Archaeology of a Very Early Program

From August 1953 to May 1954 strange love-letters appeared on the notice board of Manchester University’s Computer Department:

M. U. C.

The acronym “M.U.C.” stood for “Manchester University Computer”, the earliest fully electronic, programmable, and universal calculating machine; the fully functional prototype was completed in June 1948. One of the very first software developers, Christopher Strachey (1916–1975), had used the built-in random generator to generate texts that are intended to express and arouse emotions. The British physicist performed this experiment a full thirteen years before the appearance of Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, which is commonly — and mistakenly — held to be the earliest example of computer-generated texts. Dr. David Link constructed an emulator of the machine, and ran Strachey’s original programme on it, which is preserved in his papers held by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
From a technical perspective, the Universal Machine that Alan Turing designed theoretically in 1936 can be reduced to a problem of memory. It had to be capable of writing, reading, storing, and deleting any data. For the Manchester Mark I, the engineer Frederic Williams had modified cathode ray tubes common in both warfare and commercial applications in such a way that electronics repeatedly read and refreshed the 1280 picture dots. The storage system evolved out of attempts to filter out certain parts in the picture received from the world. In early radar, increasing improvement of the sensing power brought problems with it, for stationary objects like mountains and buildings reflected the pulses and irritated the operator by generating irrelevant information. In “Moving Target Indication” (MTI), the engineers succeeded to filter out of the uniformly recorded data what was of interest. They displayed and temporarily stored the wave form of echoes of successive pulses on a CRT whose signal plate was connected to a video amplifier. Instead of the direct signal on the monitor, which before had displayed the actual radar echoes received, the indicator generated arbitrary symbols by marking moving targets. Photography and television were touted as technologies that faithfully recorded reality. Radar, however, broke the seeming unity of reality and its representation apart, because it programmatically manipulated the image, and this can be regarded as the “primal sin” of this technology. The rays received now only represented the initial data for filtering, that is, the algebraic calculation of the image. Slowly but surely, algorithms were beginning to determine what was considered as real.
The combination of highly sensitive sensors and imaging produced by calculations resulted, as of 1941, in the appearance of “angels” on radar screens, which naturally astonished and baffled the operators. This was what they called Doppler echoes in the clear air, when pilots flying past could not identify the source. These signals hallucinated by the technical system fanned the flames of discussions about unidentified flying objects of extraterrestrial alien life forms in the 1950s. After the war, these hallucinatory signs changed into symbols of nothing; pure signs that could take on any arbitrary meaning — computer memory.
Computer Archaeology opens up a field in which theoretical and practical aspects, immaterial procedures and their technical implementation refer to and emerge from each other. The difference of execution, which separates these symbolic apparatuses from other artefacts and consists in their autonomous carrying out of almost endless sequences of instructions, creates an opaque area between the input of the original data and the incalculable moment in which the machine returns with the result, which is not easily penetrated. The technical history of ideas cannot omit this space of time and is forced to pass through the practical work of reconstructing the apparatus and the operations performed on it.