The problem with computers and programmers. A lesson from the first atom bomb.

World War II almost ended differently. Physicists couldn’t help over-engineering the software to develop the atomic bomb.

“Well, Mr Frankel, who started the program, began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody working with computers now knows about. It’s a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is you play with them. They are so wonderful. You have these switches – if it’s an even number do this, if it’s an odd number do that – and pretty soon you can do more and more elaborate things if you are clever enough, on one machine.

After a while the whole system broke down. Frankel wasn’t paying attention; he wasn’t supervising anybody. The system was going very, very slowly – while he was sitting in a room figuring out how to make one tabulator automatically print arc-tangent X, and then it would start and it would print columns and then bitsi, bitsi, bitsi, and calculate the arc-tangent automatically by integrating as it went along and make a whole table in one operation.

Absolutely useless. We *had* tables of arc-tangents. But if you’ve ever worked with computers, you understand the disease – the *delight* in being able to see how much you can do. But he got the disease for the first time, the poor fellow who invented the thing.”

It’s an extract from “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynmann”. It has some great stories about curiosity, collaboration and the importance of people understanding the “why” behind the “what” they are doing.

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