The Electron Will Change Our Lives

CSIRO Problem In Computer Network

The Sydney Morning Herald (Magazine Section), 20 December, 1947   

... one of the most startling applications of electronics is the so-called electronic brain. A great many important problems require the analysis of such a vast array of facts that, although the mathematics involved may be fairly easy, the sheer labour or the calculations may make the problem impossible to solve. Thus the scientist in his laboratory may find the progress of his research held up. He may find that to do the calculations on paper would take months or years, whereas an "electronic brain" calculator might solve it in minutes.

In more everyday affairs, an important social survey - example, of the food supplies of a nation — might involve the analysis of several million different facts a task which an electronic calculator could do quickly and infallibly.

The great mistake is to call the calculating devices "brains" because this has given the idea that they can think. They can no more think than any other machine can.

A highly skilled operator can set them a task to do and they will do it quickly and faultlessly. They may even be made to pick out according to a prearranged plan one of a number of possibilities. But this is really no more original thought than is the action of a typewriter. A typewriter may produce poems, plays, scientific papers, and so on, indefinitely, but what is produced depends upon the operator.

So it is with the electronic calculating machines. They enable men to think more quickly, but will not think for them.

Electronics has many simpler applications which are of great practical importance. Take photoelectric devices. In weaving, a thread may be made to pass through a tiny beam or light. If the thread breaks, the light falls on a photoelectric cell and causes a bell to ring. In this way a break is immediately detected, whereas previously, where one man may be minding several machines, it might not be detected for several minutes. In the course of a year such a device may save hundreds of man-hours, as well as valuable material.

Electronic "eyes" can be used to follow the outline of a piece of machinery to be copied. The electrical impulse can be transmitted to a dozen or more automatic lathes, which will then exactly re-produce it.

Simple electronic devices can be used for all kinds of counting, doing the work endlessly and without making mistakes. For example, the number of articles coming down the conveyor belt at a factory can be counted, and, if necessary, specified numbers, a gross for example, can be collected and sent to an automatically operated packing machine.

Electronic devices are already being used for detecting internal faults in castings, which appear perfect from the outside.

The possibilities of short-range television in industry have scarcely been examined. As technical advances are made it may be possible before long for staff at the central control points in large factories to see what is going on in even the farthest parts.

There is no doubt that many routine industrial processes, such as checking temperature, counting, detecting breakages, matching and copying parts, checking assembly, and so on could be done by wiring electronic devices, thus making more labour available for jobs needing more individual attention. There are difficulties, however, both practical and political, which make it certain that the change will come gradually, though come it will.

The electronic devices themselves have to be manufactured, maintained, and replaced, all of which requires highly skilled labour which is not immediately available. Specially trained operators are often needed also to use the devices once they are installed in the factory, so that they cannot necessarily be installed and brought into use overnight.