“He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”
So wrote John Maynard Keynes about Sir Isaac Newton in a lecture he wrote, but never delivered, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Newton’s birth on Christmas Day, 1642.
I was reminded of this observation the other evening when I was contemplating my ‘life and times’ as a developer come writer come ‘hacker’ (in the original, MIT, sense of the word) in late 1970s and early 1980s. My life and times with computers started as a spin off from my interest in electronics as a boy – I built a simple computer in my teens, and then took the path of ZX81, Spectrum, BBC Model B, Amstrad 6128. I was particularly interested in interfacing and robotics – and because of my prior interest in electronics I could handle both the hardware and software side of things.
I had an interest and an aptitude for electronics, analogue and digital, and could understand my computers from the printed circuit board up, so to say – on occasion doing the odd modification to circuit boards to fix things or improve matters. Looking back, it was possible to trace those 8 bit home computers back through history to the special purpose computers created during and after World War 2 to help with code breaking and other similar applications.
And this was where I started from the other evening – in IT terms, hobbyists and hackers of the 70s/80s were able to trace their activities back in to the ‘Sumerian Period’ of their interest; the world view was similar, just using chips rather than relays. Sometime in the 1980s it all changed; PCs, Macs, etc. came along with (eventually) the sort of day to day access to the Web, Apps and the Internet that we regard as normal. That ability to get involved with all aspects of the machine, from wires to Windows, disappeared.
It seems to me that there is a line back from where we are now, through the 2000s, in to the 1990s and back to those original Macs and PCs – then a hiatus – then back from the home micros via mainframes to the days of Turning Machines, Colossus and ENIAC. And those of us who remember hacking code and hardware on computers big enough to get your fingers inside are maybe not the first scientists of the modern IT age, but perhaps we are truly the last of the magicians.