War is the driver of history – many of our most prolific inventions have been the result of advances in military technology. Wars have influenced the development of computers in particular, both necessitating their advancement and at times delaying researchers’ progress. The earliest computing machines were used primarily for generating mathematical tables which could be applied to nearly any industry, and for tabulating massive amounts of data. Military leaders quickly recognized how computers could be applied to their needs though. One area in which this was particularly evident was with cryptography – the business of encrypting and cracking secret messages. The enigma machine was one of the first electromechanical devices used for the encryption and decryption of secret messages. Built by German engineers Arthur Scherbius and Richard Ritter in the 1920s, it used a series of rotors with integrated circuits to route keypresses through the machine, encoding each letter. After each letter had been encoded, it would advance the rotors, so each letter in the message would be encrypted differently. With various other mechanisms to complicate reversing the code, there were about 10,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations (Singh, pg. 136). The enigma machine was used by Nazi Germany in World War II to encrypt nearly all of their radio transmissions. Deciphering this information was of crucial importance to the British military, and an entire campus at Bletchley Park was established as a base of operations for the cryptoanalyists. One of the foremost researchers, Allan Turing, developed his own modifications of the enigma machines, designed to brute-force the ciphers based on known pieces of information. These machines, which he dubbed “bombes”, were another significant step in the progress of computin. By the end of the war, 49 of them were in use at Bletchley Park (Singh, pg. 181). War did not solely advance the progress of computers though. With significant resources being put into fighting World War II, available computers were almost exclusively purposed for wartime calculations. An example of this was the Harvard Mark I, often regaled as the first ever fully functional and stable electronic computer. Built by IBM under the direction of Howard Aiken, it was donated to Harvard University for their use in research.
When the Mark I was completed in 1944, IBM gave it to Harvard as a gift. That spring it was installed at the university but was immediately leased for the duration of the war by the US Navy, desperate for gunnery and ballistics calculations. Aiken, a naval reserve officer, was put in charge of the Mark I for the Bureau of Ships – Williams, pg. 112
Although the actual construction of the Mark I was completed rapidly, it was quickly commissioned by the Navy, and researchers at the University were shortchanged of the opportunity to truly take advantage of these new computing resources. Had it not been for the war, computer research may not have been quite so rapid, but the technology would have gotten into the hands of civilians much faster.
The role of women in the history of computing goes back as far as Babbage’s era. Frequently, women were employed in the task of completing the manual calculations (human “calculators”) for men’s work in engineering, astronomy, and other fields. The division was largely a matter of sexist beliefs that only men should do the actual innovation, but that manual computation was a waste of their time (Ceruzzi, pg. 240). Nevertheless, jobs as “computers” were very popular with women, as they were still a step up from the common secretarial work which was oftentimes the only other option. The women who took these jobs were often very proud of their work, for though the labor was menial, it did require significant mathematical abilities (Ceruzzi, pg. 239).
It is therefore unsurprising that many of the first computer “programmers” were women as well – it was merely an extension of the existing tradition of men determining what needed to be calculated, and women executing the calculation. Many of the women programmers were hired because they were mathematicians – one of the few fields women could study at the advanced level – even though they had absolutely no formal training with computers (Williams, pg. 113).
Computers are crucial in modern warfare, to a far greater extent than Aiken or Hopper could have ever predicted. Fighter jets are flown by advanced electronics, computer-powered satellites beam high-resolution imagery to military intelligence agencies, and cyber-espionage is of increasing concern for governments worldwide.
One of the areas in which military technology has come to depend extensively on computers is with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often referred to as “drones”. The United States Air Force and other government agencies have been using UAVs since the mid 1990s. Originally, they served for reconnaissance missions, but have since been adapted with powerful missiles and other weapons (USAF, 2010). Some have questioned the ethical implications of such dangerous weapons being controlled by soldiers who operate them across the world from where the fighting occurs. Most of the approximately 700 Predator Drones in Iraq are controlled from an Air Force Base in Nevada, where soldiers may have limited perception of what is actually happening on the ground when they fire their missiles (Harris, 2006).
Another area in which computers are of increasing importance in modern warfare is not on the battlefield, but with cyberwarfare. A highly publicized example was the Stuxnet virus, which infected industrial control systems running uranium enrichment systems in Iran. It is unknown to this day who was responsible for the virus, but investigations have implicated both the Israeli and American governments as possible perpetrators of the attack. The virus caused centrifuges to spin out of control, resulting in serious damage to their enrichment systems. This problem set back their nuclear program by years, which may have disrupted Iran’s attempts to build an atomic bomb. With various nations establishing specific cyberdefense units in their military, this type of sabotage may become the next major forefront of global wars.
John von Neumann was quoted as saying,
If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say, why not today. If you say at five o’clock, I say why not one o’clock. – Rheingold
In this quote, von Neumann is referring to “them” as the USSR. He was very closely involved with the development of atomic weapons before and during the cold war, and was a strong advocate of a preventative strike against the USSR. This was at a time of intense fear of global war, and von Neumann believed that if the United States did not attack the USSR first, they would surely be decimated. Nevertheless, his views were seen by many as being extreme. A majority of the American population was not advocating for a preemptive attack against the USSR. Looking back at the cold war era from our current vantage point gives us perspective on just how devastating an all-out nuclear war would have been – which von Neumann’s proposed attack surely would have provoked. Yet had I been alive in that time, it is difficult to say whether I would have agreed or disagreed. To be sure, there was significant fear of the Soviets, but as a generally pacifistic individual, I believe I would have advocated against starting a war with such a formidable opponent.
CERUZZI, P. E. (1991). When Computers Were Human. IEEE Annals of Computing History, 13(3), 237-244.
Harris, F. (2006, June 2). In Las Vegas a pilot pulls the trigger. In Iraq a Predator fires its missile. The Telegraph.
Rheingold, H. (2000). Johnny Builds Bombs and Johnny Builds Brains. In Tools for Thought.
Singh, S. (2000). The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography.
USAF. (2010, July 20). MQ-1B Predator. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from US Air Force Information Factsheets: http://www.af.mil/information/factsheets/factsheet.asp?fsID=122
Williams, K. (n.d.). Improbable Warriors: Mathematicians Grace Hopper and Mina Rees in World War II.