Science Fiction’s conception of a computer—we know better


     I didn’t know much about computers in the earlier days of their development and popularization. I had read John Campbell’s and Isaac Asimov’s articles on it, learned there was a Univac and a Multivac and a toy called the Geniac, and I had read science fiction making exorbitant claims about what a computer could be developed to do. I knew “computer” was a mathematical term and that what a computer could do was work with numbers. Users of the net have the numbers worked for them by high-speed operations that seem instantaneous to our time sense.  I had read Groff Conklin’s science fiction anthology SCIENCE FICTION THINKING MACHINES. People say that computers date back to several hundred years BC, but these are speculations rather than scientific fact and resemble those speculations of Richard Shaver. The factual element of this dating of the computer is reference to an abacus, which was in fact a kind of computer, using the meaning of the term.  Using the Univac as a model of the modern computer, although there was computer research before the midcentury mark of the 20th Century, I learned, it was the midcentury before any of these were built. Science fiction was portraying such technology as being reacted to superstitiously by the general population. The consideration of a machine that actually thought was bandied about in science fiction, but this ignores the matter of a soul, which is necessary to give life to thought. In the 19th Century there was a machine that played chess, but this turned out to be a hoax, indicating the presence of the concept, but this culminated in the adding machine, which was later developed into a machine which was also able to subtract, divide, and multiply.  It was thought that this could be made still more complex, the result being the Univac.

      I heard that there were computers in existence and being used in 1968, when an acquaintance got a job working on a computer which calculated forms. He thought he was to the good with a job like that, and used it to sustain his existence.  It got him so occupied with what he was doing that he lost his contact with his acquaintances except those similarly involved. He seemed to be considered to have a vital function and it enabled him to move to distant places and still have employment.  He didn’t like to talk about his job all that much and spoke about it chiefly in technical language that nobody could catch onto. His fellow employees were cold, stand-offish and non-communicative; they didn’t like their work to be disturbed.

      In 1976 I discovered that Purdue University had a computer. My understanding of computers at universities was that Princeton had one and there was one in development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That meant that the Georgia Technological Institute would be wanted to have one too.  The computer at Purdue had an uninteresting appearance with the exterior controls on the other side of a wall in a room nobody wanted much to go into.

      There had been a computer setup in New Orleans in 1970 but finding where it was located was practically impossible. The literature about it showed it to be misused. They had some contact with William Burroughs, which reminded me that Burroughs was the scion of the Burroughs corporation, which made adding machines, among other things. Burroughs even said that he had contributed to its development.

      Purdue’s people started announcing a computerized dating service in 1983. It was not well-received by the public. In the late 1980s Purdue introduced courses in computer technology. Someone at a shop near Purdue mentioned “the net” to me as if I would know what it was, and he said my fanzine was being talked about on it.  My brother and a friend of his, who later organized the association called DCWI, started taking courses in computing at Purdue in the 1990s, when the computer courses were successful, wide open and big. From this I acquired a household computer, which I never used until after the change of the century, when I took a computer course and learned in it how to operate one. Among my first uses of the computer were in this course. My earliest attempt to actually use one, as part of the course, we were shown how to contact “Ask Jeeves” and I put in a question to Jeeves: “What is ghu?” I knew that Ghu was a ghod of science fiction fandom. Strangely, Jeeves had a pretty good answer to this. He said that it was a form of mysticism with iconic references. I reported to Ask Jeeves that the answer to the question was satisfactory. If the question was traced I wasn’t there for it, because the computer was located at a school, and I had no further connection with the school after that course. At home I started using my computer and went down the DCWI  trail, where I noted all sorts of  misuse of the computer and heard about malware. I did surfing, looked for fandom and found none, but I did locate the Analog Forum, and became a regular of that, then later the Asimov’s Forum and the F&SF Forum, and after awhile I did start finding some science fiction sites. A year after taking the course I commenced net-publishing Surprising Stories, inspired by a group from the Analog Forum commencing Bewildering Stories, in which magazine I had some of my own stories published. Thereafter I was doing things on the computer. The forums, along with Dominion Author Chat, were shut down since then, but Facebook provided a substitute, and the F&SF forum still exists.

      So does Surprising, at which I sit now and write these words.