Explosive Beginnings
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Explosive Beginnings

The birth of computer science

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Explosive Beginnings
The Imitation Game

They say that knowledge is power; this is seldom more true than in war. To know your enemy’s plans before the heat of battle bears down upon you is to tip the balance of odds in your favor.

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” - Sun Tzu

In an increasingly modern age of warfare and conflict, calculating possibilities and outcomes became more important than whoever fielded the most men with spears or swords. With the advent of firearms and long-range artillery, complex encryption algorithms, and motorized logistics, the numbers that had to be crunched were far too numerous for any human brain to process.

A mechanical mind was required instead. As mechanical muscles amplify the muscular strength of humans, mechanical minds amplify the brainpower of humans. They were new tools to be added to our arsenal.

During the Second World War, the Germans used an encryption machine known as the Enigma. Resembling a fat, over-engineered typewriter, contained within were series of rotors and dials, set to a secret pattern every day, that scrambled the form and order of letters into a nigh-unparsable sequence of gobbledegook. It was not perfect, however - the modern encryption algorithms that we use every single day in our emails makes the Enigma look like child’s play - it was certainly possible to break the code without knowing the initial setting of the rotors within the machine itself. It required a team of people, tens or hundreds, but it was possible. But with the coming resetting of Nazi codes every morning, it was often too late to use the decrypted message to bolster defenses or reposition assets into more strategic locations.

The story enters the public eye with a man known as Alan Turing. Working out of Bletchley Park in England, he is now revered for his work with the legendary codebreaking team that, undoubtedly, won the war for the Allies. While initially regarded as a complete farce to his supervisors - after all, how can a machine think? - he developed the first well-known computer.

The war ended in 1945. Nations were torn apart and borders were re-drawn, the world left in a new and bipolar political state that split the world in twain, between east and west. Turing’s work remained, but his prejudiced treatment for being a homosexual in the time before our more accepting age led him to take his own life. His work was championed, but his treatment was an embarrassment.

He questioned the latter part of his life with a postulate that has wandered the minds of philosophers for centuries - can a machine think? In ancient times, there were ‘magical’ machines, such as the Mechanical Turk, that could supposedly play chess with a human opponent. It was all smoke and mirrors, the supposedly robotic man puppeted by a man crumpled up inside its cramped cabinet, but none the less, the concept of a thinking machine was fascinating.

Up next: Atomic Inspirations

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