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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.




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