Thursday, 28 July 2016

Who is Sophie Wilson?

Who is Sophie Wilson? 

Well, ideally, she should be better known than (or at least as well known as) Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But let’s come back to her later.

Last year, in July 2015, with my brother Jayaraman, I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Mountain View is one of several towns in the Silicon Valley, and is home to Google.  I had lived for a year in Cupertino, another town in Silicon Valley, and home to Apple. In 2000, I used to live in an apartment complex diagonally across Apple’s Cupertino Headquarters, with only the 280 Highway from San Francisco to San Jose in between, but I moved to India in September 2000. At that time, I worked for a San Jose startup called

I didn’t have any friends working in Apple, so I never got to visit their campus.  But when we visited the Computer History Museum (I’ll call it CHM, for short) in 2015, we were given a wonderful tour by a “docent”. Several tours in several interesting places in the US are now guided by docents, and this one was particularly memorable.  Our docent at the CHM was Paul Laughton, who was part of a team that wrote an Disk Operating System (DOS) for Apple for its earliest personal computers. I had a hard time believing that such a person would be a docent at a Museum, but we were quite lucky to have someone like that show us around. Laughton’s love for computers and pride in his contributions to the industry were obvious.
Paul Laughton and me at Computer History Museum
DOS and Personal Computers (PCs) are words more familiarly associated with Microsoft than Apple, because in the 1980s, Microsoft became the giant of the software industry, while Apple remained a small company. But Apple invented the personal computer.

“Do you know who invented the PC?” asked Laughton of our crowd.

“Bill Gates,” said someone.


“Steve Jobs,” said someone else.

“Close,” said Laughton. “Actually it was Steve Wozniak who built the first personal computer. Jobs and Wozniak teamed up to start Apple.” 

Most engineers, especially computer engineers, know that Wozniak built it, but most of the general public believes that Steve Jobs built it. What Jobs built was the Apple company itself.  Most people today also only know of personal computers or laptops as computers, but computers had a few decades of history before Jobs and Gates started their companies. The Museum not only showcases the development of computers but even their precursors: devices like the Hollerith punched cards, the Jacquard loom, differential engines, operational amplifiers, vacuum tubes; and pre-industrial age calculating devices like the Chinese abacus, Pascal adders, Napier’s bones and the engineer’s favorite : slide rules. Laughton had walked through these for us. And hands on exhibits like silicon wafers, and an experimental model of Google's self driving Google car.

Silicon Wafer
Jayaram in a model of the experimental self-driving Google car

I studied Computer science and Engineering in Srivilliputhur, India and later at Texas A&M University, USA, and worked in the software industry and I was quite familiar with early history of  electronic computers, from the 1940s onward, but the Museum is marvelous for those who don’t know this history. Their collection of hardware exhibits is excellent, probably unparalleled. In contrast, the almost total lack of information about software, is quite shocking. And puzzling. But they have honored a number of software pioneers including John Backus, Dan Bricklin, John McCarthy, Ken Thompson, Niklaus Wirth and Linus Torvalds. When I visited my alma mater Texas A&M University, about two weeks after the CHM visit, I was delighted to see photos of several computer pioneers adorning the halls of its Computer Science department.

Laughton talked about the evolution of computers from the Hollerith punch card calculators to ENIAC, the first electronic computer built at University of Pennsylvania using vacuum tubes, to the early computer companies like Univac and IBM which made mainframes and later Digital which made mini computers, before coming to Silicon Valley and Apple. I’ll write separately about the evolution of computers and how they are displayed in the Computer History Museum.

Laughton finished by showing us a photo of Sophie Wilson. No one recognized her. Sadly, I hadn’t even heard of her.  Have you?

An accidental theme of this blog, is people who accomplished extraordinary things, but are, ridiculously, not as famous as they should be. The Ajivakas and Alfred Russel Wallace of my blog title fit that theme, as do Mayan mathematics and Haber & Bosch, who were the subject of my first two essays.

Sophie Wilson, announced Laughton, wrote software that runs in more computers than software written by anyone else in the world. There are roughly 30 billion processors that run Sophie Wilson’s software. Cellphones  made by Apple, Samsung, Nokia, HTC and Sony Ericsson, that number seems quite believable. Add other devices like iPods, iPads, game consoles by Nintendo and Sony, GPS navigation devices, digital cameras and televisions, all of which use ARM’s processors, I wonder if it is an underestimate. Note that the Earth’s human population is only about 7 billion, of which perhaps 5 billion people use such electronic devices, so each of them, on average, uses  six ARM processors. And she’s practically unknown, though the British Royal Society elected her a Fellow, and so did the CHM. Among more famous Fellows of the Royal Society are Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Wallace is one of the less famous ones.
Sophie Wilson
ARM processors differ from the more famous computer processors like Intel’s Pentium or Motorola’s 68000 series and almost all PC processors, in that the latter use CISC architecture, while ARM uses RISC. The advent of mobile phones and such portable devices vastly increased the market for ARM’s processors which use far less power and more compactly designed.  ARM is also not as famous as Google, Samsung, Microsoft, Intel etc.(except perhaps to investors). Just like Sophie Wilson. And Wilson’s fellow ARM developer, Steve Furber.

Translating Avvaiyaar, who said கற்றது கை மண் அளவு. கல்லாதது உலகளவு kaRRathu kai maN aLavu, kallaadadu ulagaLavu” : All we know is a handful of sand. Our ignorance is as big as the earth. Only two days earlier, I had stumbled upon photo of a SQL Server 6.0 box, which had my autograph as one of the team members, on a Microsoft website, and was feeling a tad nostalgic. This was humbling.

About Sophie Wilson 
  1. Wikipedia
  2. Fellow of Royal Society
  3. The wide use of ARM chips

Paul Laughton and Apple DOS

SideScript (not quite Postscript): I am curious whether one day software will also be considered literature and studied as such. I asked this on Facebook once, but the responses went in a different direction than I hoped. Most people who write software, haven’t really seen the source code of the great and marvelous software that people use, or that historically made the industry possible. Computer languages rival human languages in number and mystifying notation, and all 20th century computer languages may be obsolete in a few years. But they may be of some interest, to historians and linguists, if not the public. Laughton’s assembly code for Apple DOS is listed on CHM’s website. It’s a start.

Science Yatra

Some Ajivaka Wallacians
  1. Fred Sanger
  2. Dorothy Hodgkin (in Tamil டோரோதி ஹாட்ஜ்கின்)
  3. Lynn Margulis
  4. GN Lewis
  5. Emile Levassor (in Tamil)
  6. Nilakantha Somasatvan
  7. Francis Whyte Ellis
  8. Charles Parsons
  9. John Ambrose Fleming
  10. Indian Astronomers and Mathematicians
  11. Walter Brattain (in Tamil சிலிகான் சிற்பி - வால்டர்  பிராட்டன்)
SQL Server 6.0 software box
My autograph is on right lower corner, sideways

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