Edmund Berkeley

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Edmund Berkeley

Edmund Berkeley explains how the Electric Brain Simon gets instructions from a piece of punched tape (1950)
Edmund Berkeley explains how the Electric Brain Simon gets instructions from a piece of punched tape (1950)

Edmund Callis Berkeley (1909–1988) was an American computer scientist, publisher, and social activist, who worked to achieve conditions that might minimize the threat of nuclear war. The first meeting of Berkeley with computers was in 1939 when he visited Bell Laboratories to see George Stibitz’s Complex Number Computer. Next was in 1942 when he joined the U. S. Navy and worked at Dahlgren Laboratory as a mathematician. There, he was assigned to Howard Aiken‘s Harvard Laboratory and observed Mark I, and worked on building on the next sequential calculator project (Mark II). In November 1946 he drafted a specification for Sequence Controlled Calculators for the Prudential, which led to signing a contract with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1947 for one of the first UNIVAC computers.

In 1949, when Prudential forbade him to work on projects related to avoiding nuclear war, even on his own time, Edmund Berkeley left to become an independent consultant and found his own company—Berkeley Associates.

Shortly after the establishment of his company, in 1949, Edmund Berkeley wrote one of the first books on electronic computers for a general audience, which made him famous—Giant Brains, or Machines That Think (see the book). In the book, he described the principles behind computing machines (called then “electric brains”, “mechanical brains”, “sequence-controlled calculators”, or various other terms), and then gave a technical but accessible survey of the most prominent examples of the time, including machines from MIT, Harvard, the Moore School, Bell Laboratories, and elsewhere. Berkeley stated, that in the future “automated library” catalogue records (and, eventually, the documents) would be on microfilm and retrieved by a digital computer: “You will be able to dial into the catalogue machine ‘making biscuits.’ There will be a flutter of movie film in the machine. Soon it will stop, and, in front of you on the screen will be projected the part of the catalogue which shows the names of three or four books containing recipes for biscuits.”

Radio-electronics magazine, October 1950
Radio-electronics magazine, October 1950

In the above-mentioned book, Berkeley also outlined his own project, which seems to be the first personal computer in the world, called Simon—We shall now consider how we can design a very simple machine that will think. Let us call it Simon, because of its predecessor, Simple Simon… Simon is so simple and so small in fact that it could be built to fill up less space than a grocery-store box; about four cubic feet… It may seem that a simple model of a mechanical brain like Simon is of no great practical use. On the contrary, Simon has the same use in instruction as a set of simple chemical experiments has: to stimulate thinking and understanding, and to produce training and skill. A training course on mechanical brains could very well include the construction of a simple model mechanical brain, as an exercise.

Plans on how to build this computer, as well as a general description of the computer’s state of the art, were published in a series of 13 consecutive articles (see the first article, which is an introduction to Simon and relay logic) of the journal Radio Electronics, starting from October 1950 issue (see the nearby photo of the front cover of the journal).

Simon is a simple Harvard architecture machine, containing 129 relays (readily available at army surplus stores at that time), a stepping switch, and a five-hole paper tape feed. The program is executed directly from paper tape. Program instructions and data are input via a 5-level paper tape reader (5 bits or holes wide), as the 5-level paper tape was standard for use with teletypes before the advent of ASCII. Data may also be input manually via the front-panel switches during program execution.

The electric brain Simon
The electric brain Simon

Various registers are provided, some for general data storage, and others for targeted purposes. The registers and busses of Simon are a mixture of 2-bit and 4-bit wide. The processor (ALU) is also 2-bits wide.

Output is via the five lamps, connected to the Output Registers.

Operations performed by Simon included: addition, negation, greater than, selection, and several bitwise operations. To program Simon one has to prepare a paper tape with the machine instructions and data. The paper tape is the program memory: Simon executes the program instructions as it reads the tape, it does not load the program.

The tape reader reads in one direction only. All instructions on the tape are executed in sequence, there is no opportunity to skip instructions or branches. Some degree of conditional operation is provided for by the selective assignment function of the ALU. There is one opportunity to create a loop by forming the entire program tape into a loop.

A manual for Geniac (Genius Almost-Automatic Computer)
A manual for Geniac (Genius Almost-Automatic Computer)

A program may include programmed halts. Program execution stops, and the machine waits for manual indication before resuming execution. The output lamps can be observed at this point and/or a data value can be input from the front panel.

As an educational instrument, Simon was directed more towards the electrical implementation of logic and introducing the principles of binary arithmetic, logic, and automatic computation to a wider public, than towards programming. As such, and as a minimal machine, programmability is rather limited. The one saving grace may be that the program can be quite long (limited only by paper tape handling), a feature that certainly would not have been feasible in an attempt to make an inexpensive stored-program machine at the time.

Initially, Simon cost about $600 to construct. The first working model was built at Columbia University with the help of two graduate students. By 1959, over 400 Simon plans were sold.

What makes “Simon” unique? According to Edmund Berkeley, the machine has established at least half a dozen world records.
– It is the smallest complete mechanical brain in existence.
– It knows not more than four numbers; it can express only the numbers 0, 1, 2, and 3.
– It is “guaranteed to make every member of an audience feel superior to it.”
– It is a mechanical brain that has cost less than $1,000.
– It can be carried around in one hand (and the power supply in the other hand).
– It can be completely understood by one man.
– It is an excellent device for teaching, lecturing, and explaining.

The Squee robot (an electronic robot squirrel) of Edmund Berkeley
The Squee robot (an electronic robot squirrel) of Edmund Berkeley

Later Edmund Berkeley designed and sold several other simple calculating devices and robots like Squee (an electronic robot squirrel), Geniac (Genius Almost-Automatic Computer) (see the lower image), Tyniac (Tiny Almost-Automatic Computer), Weeniac (Weeny Almost-Automatic Computer), Brainiac (Brain-Imitating Almost-Automatic Computer), and Relay Moe (a tick-tack-toe machine with variable strategies).

The Squee robot was the featured construction project on the cover of the December 1951 issue of the journal Radio-Electronics (see the nearby image). It was an electronic robot squirrel, which had four sense organs (two photo-tubes, two contact switches), three acting organs (a drive motor, a steering motor, and a motor that opens and closes the scoop or “hands” in the front), and a small brain of half a dozen relays.

The primary goal of the Squee is to hunt for a “nut”. The “nut” is a tennis ball designated by a member of the audience who steadily holds a flashlight above the ball, pointing the light at Squee. Then Squee approaches, picks up the “nut” in its “hands” (the scoop), stops paying attention to the steady light, sees instead a light that goes on and off 120 times a second shining over its “nest”, takes the “nut” to its “nest”, then leaves the nuts, and then returns to hunting more “nuts”. When Squee is operating, it is a dramatic and exciting example of a robot. The machine however is sensitive to the surrounding light level, and usually has to be shown in a room about 8 by 10 ft. with only a small amount of overhead light and black curtained walls.

The Squee robot of Edmund Berkeley, as it was presented in Popular Science magazine in 1952
The Squee robot of Edmund Berkeley, presented in Popular Science magazine in 1952

In 1956 Edmund Berkeley published an article (see Small Robots Report), summarizing his ideas, by presenting his small robot machines and also offering two electric brain construction kits.

As a whole, Edmund Berkeley’s books and computer/robot kits had a significant impact on the future of computer development (he wrote 16 books on computers and mathematics, and traveled the world lecturing on computers and the social responsibilities of computer scientists) and directly influenced many computer pioneers like Ivan Sutherland and Wesley Clark.

Biography of Edmund Berkeley

Edmund Callis Berkeley (the image is property of the University of Minnesota)
Edmund Callis Berkeley (image is property of the University of Minnesota)

Edmund Callis Berkeley was born in Manhattan, New York, on 22 February 1909, to William Nathaniel Berkeley (1868-1928), a pathology doctor, and Clara Helene (Ellen) Berkeley. Besides Edmund, the family had one daughter: Ella Katherine.

Edmund’s primary school was St. Bernard’s School for Boys, an elite, private all-male elementary school in Manhattan, which he attended from 1918 to 1923. Then (from 1923 to 1925) he continued at Phillips Exeter Academy, a distinguished college preparatory school for boys in New Hampshire, where he was the youngest student, and graduated first in his class. There his teachers recognized his exceptional mathematical talent and directed him to individual instruction. At this time Edmund was already a very intelligent and socially awkward boy, who did not fit well with the sons of the elite families, who made the majority of students and were some 5-10 years older than him.

Edmund was only 16 when he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, so his parents decided to give him a break before college. For a year he lived in his family home near Columbia University, working as an instructor at St. Bernard’s School.

In 1926, Edmund entered Harvard College and graduated summa cum laude in Mathematics and Logic in June 1930. His dream from childhood was to become a mining engineer, but at Harvard he changed his mind, deciding on a career as a creative mathematician. For him, mathematics was not only rigorous reasoning, it was magic, the wizardry of Arabia. However, upon his graduation in 1930, the Great Depression was deepening, and his parents pressured him to be practical and to seek a career in business, instead of creative mathematics. That’s why after receiving his BA from Harvard, Edmund pursued a career as an actuarial clerk at Mutual Life Insurance of New York.

The Main building, Gymnasium and Abbot Hall of Phillips Exeter Academy in 1920s
Main building, Gymnasium, and Abbot Hall of Phillips Exeter Academy, the 1920s

1934 was a happy year for Berkeley. In June he married Ruth Pirkle (1898-1991) of Cummings, Georgia, a 35 years old Ph.D. in biology and teacher at Hunter College in Manhattan. At the same time, he was happy to inherit over 8000 USD from his aunt. Thus the couple decided to go for three and half months honeymoon tour in Europe. They visited ten countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Norway, and even Soviet Union.

Upon his return in the autumn of 1934, Berkeley took a position in the actuarial department of Prudential Insurance of America in New Jersey, where he eventually became chief research consultant. In 1937 he published an article in the magazine The Record of the American Institute of Actuaries, in which he argued for the use of symbolic logic for resolving insurance problems like analyzing risk and developing rules for writing policies.

During World War II Berkeley was given leave for military duty. In 1942 he was enlisted in the United States Navy as a Naval Reserve officer for three and a half years. Initially, he was an Inspector of supply, but later he was reassigned under Howard Aiken at the Harvard Computation Laboratory and was assigned to help run of Mark I computer. The work with Mark I was a really stimulating experience for Berkeley.

Giant Brains of Berkeley
Giant Brains of Berkeley

In 1946 Berkeley returned to his work at Prudential as a Senior Methods Analyst, later advancing to Chief Research Consultant. He was assigned a very interesting task—to determine how the company could use the new automatic electronic equipment for data processing. However, in 1948 a change in the company management resulted in an extensive reduction of his assignment, later he had other differences with them regarding the book, he was writing. Thus in 1948, he decided to go into his own business as a lecturer, consulting actuary, publisher, and developer of computers. His new-founded company, Berkeley Enterprises, was particularly interested in symbolic logic, computers, robots, mathematics, operations research, language, and explanation.

In 1949, Berkeley wrote one of the first books on electronic computers for a general audience, which made him famous—Giant Brains, or Machines That Think, in which he described the principles behind computers, and then gave a technical but accessible survey of the most prominent examples of the time, including machines from MIT, Harvard, the Moore School, Bell Laboratories, and others. In this book Berkeley envisioned that computers would be applied not only to mathematical and computational problems but also to a wide range of other problems, like finding information in a library, typing text from voice, translating languages, and controlling other machines.

Edmund and Ruth Berkeley divorced in 1948 (they had a daughter, Laura Helen), and in 1949 he married Susan Slocum Wallace (16 Aug. 1911—18 Feb. 2001) from Newtonville, Mass., adopting her three children to his family.

Edmund Berkeley with one of his robots
Edmund Berkeley with one of his robots

In the 1950s Berkeley devoted much effort to developing robots and made them available to anyone, who could pay a small sum for a mail ordered kit. In the October 1950 issue of the journal Radio Electronics was published an article, which was an introduction to Simon and relay logic. In the next issues were published 12 articles, dedicated to plans on how to build a computer, as well as a general description of the computers state of the art.

In 1950 Berkeley founded, published, and edited a journal, which was developed in 1951 to Computers and Automation, thought to be the first computer magazine.

Edmund Berkeley was a genius, whose eccentricities had become proverbial even before his talents were widely recognized. He died of liver cancer in Boston on 7 March 1988 and was buried in Newton Cemetery, Massachusetts. He was survived by his wife, Susan, two sons, a daughter, and a granddaughter.