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July 26, 2002

The best analogy ever for computers

Back when I first learned about computers back in junior high school, I came across a book called Man and the Computer by John G. Kemeny. (I'm guessing I probably picked it up because John Kemeny is the co-inventor of BASIC, and I was learning BASIC at the time - around 1973.) Kemeny's book came out in 1972. If you wanted to use a computer, just about the only way was to use a time sharing system that could support 100 people using low speed terminals writing programs in BASIC.

One part of the book that's stuck with me all these years was a short section in which Kemeny explained how faster computers work by way of an analogy:

Let us suppose that space travelers discover a higher order of living beings. These creatures are much more intelligent than men, but their metabolism is much slower. We recognize their great insights into problems and hope that they will help us to resolve a number of issues currently beyond human capability. On the other hand, they are so frustratingly slow that they must rely on our much faster response time in order to get the job done.
I lost my copy of Kemeny's book years ago, but today I found a copy at the Georgia Tech library. Kemeny's book is long out of print (although it is available used), so here's Kemeny's analogy. I've added a postscript: how much faster would you guess a typical PC is than the time shared GE 635 computer Kemeny based his analogy on?