24 April 2012

Systems Thinking Produces the Modern Computer

It might be time to revisit the original impetus for the computer and make that - like the computer - personal.

William Shockley headed the team at Bell Labs that invented the transistor. This electronic on-off switch became the basis for the computer chip and after Shockley left Bell Labs and started his own company, he hired a couple of guys (Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce) who went on to found Intel.

But the transistor was not invented to become the foundation for the modern computer. Instead, it was invented to replace the problematic mechanical switches in the telecommunications system.

Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bells Labs and  the Great Age of American Innovation, reports that it was actually one of the pioneers of systems thinking who alerted the folks at Bell Labs that their new invention had applications in computing.

Jay Forrester was working on computing simulations at MIT and when he heard about the transistor, wrote to the scientists at Bell Labs asking for samples. He told them that he thought that this could be used in computing, apparently getting them to see the serious potential of this.

Forrester went on to pioneer system dynamics and to apply it to business and urban planning.

Computers were initially seen as a tool for countries, then institutions, and then finally individuals. The personal computer has been hugely disruptive.

Curiously, the initial impetus for applying the transistor to computing has yet to move beyond institutions. That is, simulations and the modeling of system dynamics has yet to be adopted by groups much smaller than Shell Oil. We now have the computing power to do this. Maybe it is time to make systems thinking a part of the school curriculum - and give students ways of seeing the world that are as sophisticated as their computers.

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