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My novel idea (feel free to use it!) is about someone taking a 1980s computer back to the Second World War. It's used by the Allies to decrypt Ultra intelligence and is treated like a kind of holy relic - only a tiny set of "high priests" are allowed near it, fewer still can touch it, and because of its importance they go to extraordinary lengths to ensure it can never be damaged by anything from bombs to power glitches. Think a Commodore 64 in a ridiculous white room.

But the book would be more about the consequences of this - do they eventually take the thing apart and jump-start a silicon chip revolution in the 1950s, or (more likely I think) does the government destroy the machine as the UK government did to the Bletchley machines after WWII, and because there's no ground-up computer theory does it set back computing for decades?




Yeah, no. I've handled parts of Whirlwind[1], a vacuum tube machine from just post-WWII, and the gap from that to a C-64 or any other circa-1980 machine is just too great. They were using discrete wiring, resistors and wires soldered to the bases of the vacuum tubes. The Whirlwind was the first machine to use core memory, and the 4K core memory unit is a box about the size of a phone booth. I don't know if PCBs existed before 1950 but if they did, they were certainly single-sided.

So now ask somebody really smart in that technology, like say Jay Forrester[2] who had just finished inventing core memory, to analyze this magic beige plastic box. He could probably recognize that the PCB provided connectivity between parts, but what are the parts, these little flat plastic tiles? I don't think it would be possible to work out from first principles what the functional contents of a DRAM chip is, let alone the CPU. Even if they x-rayed it, supposing they had x-ray tech with enough resolution to resolve a chip, how could they figure out that those little blobs are transistors? Transistors hadn't been invented!

I think they'd have to concede this is "sufficiently advanced" tech, in Arthur Clarke's phrase, to be indistinguishable from magic.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whirlwind_I

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Wright_Forrester


I don't buy it; a C64 is simple enough that you could work out the functionality of most components by trial and error and then work back from first principles. You'd measure 5v TTL, and under a scope you'd see the 1mhz binary signal. From there, 74 series chips on the board would probably be the first to be identified, simply based on inputs and outputs. And once you did that, and knew that this was a NOR gate or whatever, you'd pop the top off, look at it under microscope, and start to work back from your knowledge that this had digital logic and you'd figure out what the _function_ of a transistor was even if you didn't know what it is.

The RAMs and ROMs would be fairly trivial to figure out, as well.

You might not learn the manufacturing process -- that really did take a couple decades of material science and physics advances. But the principles of the machine would be clear. And then you could take the knowledge of that and scale it to the electronics components available in the era. You'd definitely have a head start simply knowing that these things were _possible_, and getting a boost on knowing how a computer could be structured.


They can probably figure out that the little plastic things either store data or perform computation. By process of elimination since wires, resistors, capacitors, PCBs can all be analyzed for their properties.

Given that knowledge they can try breaking those pieces of plastic apart to see that it's a housing over some sort of ceramic core. Using spectroscopy and chemistry you can figure out what that core is made out of. Now you know what mix of chemicals allows for really high density data storage and computation.

Using x-rays and microscopes they can figure out that the little ceramic die has some sort of structure etched on it. Maybe remove tiny pieces to see what different parts/layers are chemically composed of.

Now they know that there's something interesting about certain elements deposited on top of silicon using some sort of etching approach. Early transistor research was already well along (and had been patented already in the 20s) so it's likely they would have made the connection. Given all that you can start brute forcing industries and ideas around those materials.


They would see the "© 1982" on a chip and although it would be incredibly futuristic (35+ years in the future!), would at least know it was likely to be created by humans. Whether they could work out how on earth you place such incredibly tiny components onto a sliver of silicon is interesting. If the person taking the computer back in time mentioned the word "photolithography" I suspect they would have been able to make a pretty good guess.


I don't think there would be many copyright dates on the chips. They might think that Texas ruled the world from the TI logo being on everything, though.


Here's a high res picture of the C64 PCB, where you can see the markings on the chips: https://myoldcomputer.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/board-32...

You can see both copyright dates, and plenty of other English text. While in 1940 this would have represented incredible futuristic technology, it's pretty obviously made by humans and not a piece of alien magic. It also has components like resistors and capacitors with markings which would have been immediately obvious to 1940s electronics experts.


I'm pretty sure you're wrong. People are very good at pattern recognition. You don't need to understand the physics to check lots of combinations of inputs and deduce what this black box do.


I would read this book. Fictional [alternative] history is always fun to read for me.


If I may recomend the book "Stars' Reach: A Novel of the Deindustrial Future" by one John Michael Greer, maybe we can see this idea from a different perspective.

From Greer's point of view, the factors that make today's hardware brittle are not technical, but economic. Corporations have to make electronics at a profit, and at a price point that is accesible to the average working class citizen. This business model would not be sustainable in the either a fast-collapse or slow-collapse scenario.

Instead, in the novel, governments take over the tech industry sometime in the second half of the 21st century, and treat it as a strategic resource in its struggle to not be left out in the global musical chairs game of climate change + resource depletion. They run it at a loss, and put the best minds they can spare to the task of making a computing infrastructure that is built to last.

By the 25th century, which is the time when the novel's events take place, Humanity has lost the ability to manufacture electronics, but computers built 350 years ago are kept in working order by a cadre of highly trained specialists (most of which have the skills of a geeksquad employee, but still). Common people have maybe heard some wildly innacurate legend about robots or computers. Wealty individuals are probably better informed but still cannot own one of those at any price. They only computers depicted of spoken about are US government property operated at US millitary facilities (or maybe there was one at the Library of Congress, do not really recall, though).

There's one post-collapse hacker in the novel, a secondary character that is part of the protagonist's crew. The author is not an engineering type and dances around the actual skills of this guy, but I'd say he seems able to use a debugger/hex editor and read binaries. His greatest achievement, though, is to fix and set up an ancient printer and recover documents from a disk that was "erased" but not wiped clean.


Why is this dead? I've read the blog of the author in the past and found it to be inspiring, or at least interesting, because his short stories did the "what could be different?" thing very well.

(edit: wording)




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