Jul 17, 2007 12:00 AM
Many of the early computers were driven by military needs. Britain devised the Colossus in 1943 to break German wartime codes. The U.S. Army Ballistics Research Laboratory created the now famous ENIAC in 1946 to generate firing tables for artillery and mortars.
The first "tabulating machines" and "analytical engines" that would later be characterized as the earliest computers, however, date back to the late 1800s. James Thomson, brother of Lord Kelvin, conceived of a "differential analyzer" to solve differential equations, using a system of wheels, discs and levers. Vannevar Bush at MIT developed advanced analyzers beginning in the 1920s. Yet the contraptions drew international notoriety when Barnes Wallis in Surrey, England, tapped them to design "bouncing bombs," used in the famous dambusters raid that blew up major dams in Germany's industrial Ruhr valley during WWII.
Lost in all this military computing history is a little tale about rabbits.
As Rob O'Neill reported
several days ago in Computerworld, the only original, complete differential analyzer left in the world--which was built in 1935 and was indeed part of the dambusters brigade--has been refurbished and put on display at New Zealand's Museum of Transport and Technology. How did it end up in New Zealand? First, engineers brought it there to help them harden the design of the Benmore Hydro Dam. Second, the country's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research wanted it to calculate rabbit populations.
The nation was pulling its hair out over the rapid rise of wild rabbits. They bred so vigorously and ate so much vegetation that they were ruining pasture lands for cattle and were causing widespread erosion of soil, leading to loss of species as well as economic losses. How to control them depended on figuring out how the rabbit population was spreading, and the differential analyzer seemed the best tool.
The problem may sound odd today, but the situation became well known worldwide. So well know, in fact, that it even made its way into an American cartoon of the day, which hopped into my mind when I looked into this story. In an early Merrie Melodies short from Warner Brothers Studios, titled "A Day at the Zoo," viewers are given a tour of cages housing animals endowed with goofy human traits. At one point the scene advances to the rabbit cage. Four cute bunnies are standing on their hind legs pulling the levers of small calculating machines. The narrator says "And here we come to a family of white rabbits. Of course, you all know how fast they can multiply."
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