CS4FN Advent – Day 21: wreaths and rope memory – weave your own space age computer

Each day throughout December (until Christmas Day) we’ll be publishing a computing-themed blog post suggested by the picture on the front of our Advent Calendar. Today’s image on the door of the CS4FN Christmas Computing Advent Calendar is a Christmas wreath which made me think of wires and of weaving.

A Christmas wreath

 

You might remember that our first advent calendar post was about the links between coding and knitting. Today’s post looks at an even more literal version of that: core rope memory.

1. Core rope memory: the Apollo space mission’s woven computer memory

by Jo Brodie, QMUL.

Firstly it looks like this.

Rope memory from the Apollo Guidance Computer. Image from Wikipedia.

Secondly it got us to the Moon!

Probably the world’s first portable computer

Core rope memory was made up of small ‘eyelets’ or beads of metal called ferrite that can be magnetised (these ring-shaped magnets were known as magnetic cores) and copper wire which was woven through some of the eyelets but not others. An electrical current passing through the wires made the whole thing work. A wire that passed through an eyelet would be read as a binary 1 when the current was on but if it passed around one then it would be read as 0. This meant that a computer program, made up of sequences of 1s and 0s, could be permanently stored by the pattern that was woven.

This type of memory was woven in the 1960s for NASA’s Apollo moon mission by women who were skilled textile workers. They would work in pairs and use a special hollow needle to thread the copper wire through one magnetic core and then the other person would thread it back through a different one, following instructions from another program which indicated which of the eyelets to use.

That program was first developed on a computer (the sort that took up a whole room back then) and then translated into instructions for a machine which helped the weavers get the wire threads into the correct position. It was very difficult to undo a mistake so a great deal of care was taken to get things right the first time, especially as it could take up to two months to complete one block of memory. Some of the rope weavers were overseen by Margaret Hamilton, one of the women who developed the software used on board the spacecraft.

Margaret Hamilton, in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project. Image from Wikipedia.

Several of these pre-programmed core rope memory units were combined and installed in the guidance computers of the Apollo mission spacecraft, to fly astronauts safely to the Moon and back.

NASA needed on-board guidance systems to control the spacecraft independently of Mission Control back on Earth. They needed something that didn’t take up too much room or weigh too much, that could survive the shaking and juddering of take-off and background radiation – core rope memory fitted the bill perfectly.

It packed a lot* of information into a small space and was very robust as it could only break if a wire came loose or one of the ferrite eyelets was damaged (which didn’t happen). To make sure though, the guidance computer’s electronics were protected by being sealed from the atmosphere. They survived and worked well, guiding the Landing Modules safely onto the Moon.

*well, not by modern standards! The guidance computer contained only around 70 kilobytes of read only memory.

 

2. A brief history of the digital revolution, part 1: from birth to the moon

by Lewis Dartnell. This post, from 2008, was originally published on the CS4FN website.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2008 invited you on a high tech trek to build the ultimate computer. The Christmas Lectures talk a lot about the current cutting-edge of computer technology, but what were things like in the early days of the digital revolution? The researcher for the 2008 Christmas Lectures, Lewis Dartnell, takes us through the story.

Electronic computers have come a long way since their birth only 50 years ago. One of the very first digital computers was built at the University of Manchester, a prototype called Manchester Mark I. The machine was revolutionary, with its complex processing circuits and storage memory to hold both the program being run and the data it was working on. The Mark I was first run on 21 June 1948 and paved the way as a universal computer that is truly versatile and can be reprogrammed at will, rather than being hard-wired for a single particular task.

A vacuum-tube (specifically a voltage-regulator tube) in use. Image from Wikipedia.

These earliest computers used technology called vacuum tubes, which were essentially just like filament light bulbs. Because they get so hot, such vacuum tubes were really power hungry and not very reliable. Typically, computers like the Manchester Mark I, processing using vacuum tubes, could only be run for a few hours at a time before one of the vacuum tubes broke and had to be replaced. The biggest break-through in modern computing came with the invention of the transistor, a small electronic component that can perform the same function as a vacuum tube, but is much more energy efficient and reliable. The beauty of the transistor is that computer scientists found ways of making them smaller and smaller, and to connect a number of them together into a single miniaturized processing board called an integrated circuit. These came to be known as microchips, and form the basis of all the computers made today.

A major drive for the development of microchip technology was the Apollo programme, begun in 1961 to land humans on the Moon. Although the vast majority of the complex calculations to do with plotting the trajectory and navigating to the moon were performed by enormous banks of computers back on Earth, it was crucial for the spacecraft to have their own on-board computer system. This was called the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), and both the command module and the lunar module, which actually made the descent to the surface of the moon, had one each. These ground-breaking computers provided the astronauts with crucial flight information, helped them make course corrections and to touch-down gently on the moon’s surface. Because it’s absolutely crucial to reduce the amount of mass and power usage on a spacecraft as far as possible, developing these guidance computers really pushed the technology in miniaturising integrated circuits.

The Display and Keyboard Interface (known as DSKY and pronounced Diskee) of the Apollo mission’s guidance computer. Image from Wikipedia

The Apollo Guidance Computer not only helped drive the early development of microchips, but it also suffered one of the most infamous computer crashes in history. During the descent down to the Moon’s surface the AGC started displaying two error messages that the two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, weren’t familiar with. Engineers back at mission control on Earth quickly tried to identify the error code, and what it might mean for the lunar landing. Something that had never happened in any of the training simulations was now overloading the flow of data into the computer, the first time it had ever been used for real. Time was running out with only a limited amount of rocket fuel on-board and the Moon rushing up towards them. Luckily the computer entered a fail-safe mode, aborting low-priority calculations but able to continue with the critical tasks for the landing.

It wasn’t until the investigation afterwards that it was realized just how lucky Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had really been. The root of the problem was that the real attempt at the Moon landing was the first time an important radar system had been plugged into the computer, sending data into the AGC that wasn’t needed for the landing. This almost totally overloaded the computer, but by amazing luck, the amount of spare processing power built into the system for safety was almost exactly the amount being wasted by the un-needed radar, and the AGC didn’t crash completely.

The story of the digital revolution continues in part 2.

 

3. Activity 1 – make your own core rope memory

A nice craft activity is to create a cut-down version with beads and coloured threads. You string 8 beads (with a gap between them) on one thread to form a single ‘byte’ (of 8 binary bits). You then take other threads and pass them through when you want that bead to read 1, or over, when you want that bead to read 0. One way of deciding whether it’s 1 or 0 is to pick a word (or maybe your name) and use enough threads so you have one for each letter.

Using binary encoding for each letter (so capital letter A would be 01000001 if you’re following this conversion from binary to letters table) and put that letter’s thread through or over each of the 8 beads to ‘spell’ out the letter in binary.

My name’s Jo so mine would have only three threads (one to hold the 8 beads and two to spell my name). One thread would go over, through, over, over, through, over, through, over to spell the capital letter J (01001010) and over, through, through, over, through, through, through, through to spell lowercase o (01101111). Let’s hope you have a slightly longer name!

 

4. Activity 2 – create an origami laurel wreath

Not only do we have a wreath-themed activity in our back catalogue (!) but in a delightful coincidence this story also relates to Apollo (the Greek god). If you’re wondering what origami might have to do with computing it’s just another way of looking at algorithms and instructions. Also, decomposition (breaking a problem into smaller parts) because you can re-use the instructions needed for the laurel wreath to make other origami items. We like using ‘unplugged’ activities like this to demonstrate computing concepts.

Wreath instructions here.

Create an origami laurel wreath from nested triangles of paper.

 

The creation of this post was funded by UKRI, through grant EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin, and forms part of a broader project on the development and impact of computing.

 

 

5. Previous Advent Calendar posts

CS4FN Advent – Day 1 – Woolly jumpers, knitting and coding (1 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 2 – Pairs: mittens, gloves, pair programming, magic tricks (2 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 3 – woolly hat: warming versus cooling (3 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 4 – Ice skate: detecting neutrinos at the South Pole, figure-skating motion capture, Frozen and a puzzle (4 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 5 – snowman: analog hydraulic computers (aka water computers), digital compression, and a puzzle (5 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 6 – patterned bauble: tracing patterns in computing – printed circuit boards, spotting links and a puzzle for tourists (6 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 7 – Computing for the birds: dawn chorus, birds as data carriers and a Google April Fool (plus a puzzle!) (7 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 8: gifts, and wrapping – Tim Berners-Lee, black boxes and another computing puzzle (8 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 9: gingerbread man – computing and ‘food’ (cookies, spam!), and a puzzle (9 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 10: Holly, Ivy and Alexa – chatbots and the useful skill of file management. Plus win at noughts and crosses – (10 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 11: the proof of the pudding… mathematical proof (11 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 12: Computer Memory – Molecules and Memristors – (12 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 13: snowflakes – six-sided symmetry, hexahexaflexagons and finite state machines in computing (13 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 14 – Why is your internet so slow + a festive kriss-kross puzzle (14 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 15 – a candle: optical fibre, optical illusions (15 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 16: candy cane or walking aid: designing for everyone, human computer interaction (16 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 17: reindeer and pocket switching (17 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 18: cracker or hacker? Cyber security(18 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 19: jingle bells or warning bells? Avoiding computer scams (19 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 20: where’s it @? Gift tags and internet addresses (20 December 2021)

 

CS4FN Advent – Day 21: wreaths and rope memory – weave your own space age computer (21 December 2021) – this post

 

 

 

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