About the Manual

The Nerd Manual is meant to be both a useful resource for nerds and a guide for the people involved with nerds. If you're a nerd you can find information here that will help you improve your life and perhaps better understand yourself. If you're close friends with, dating, or married to a nerd, I want to give you insight into things nerds do that a lot of people have difficulty understanding.


I hope to avoid offending anyone--either nerd or non-nerd--but please understand that the manual will get into some sensitive topics, stray into contentious territories, and even use stereotypes to illustrate points. It's OK to disagree with something, but keep your comments civil.

2017-07-05

Which Came First, the Computer or the Nerd?

Part of the Bell Telephone Network
Here's an interesting thought: computer nerds are fascinated with programming, hacking, and networking computers, but what did that type of person do before computers were invented?

There were networks and structured algorithms before there were computers, so the computer nerds of today would still have plenty of opportunities to explore their passions in the past. I'll set the mid-1940s as a starting point for computers because that’s when ENIAC was switched on, although there were much earlier calculating machines, but I'll mention those below.

Possibly the nerdiest thing with wires and switches prior to electronic computers was the telephone network. In the US, the Bell network started out in 1877 and the company started buying up all the smaller phone networks in the early 1900s. At one point, every telephone in the world was connected to the Bell network in some way. Think about that for a second. You had this device in your home or office that could connect you to any other similar device anywhere else in the world. Sound familiar? This was an awesome playground. Nerds figured out how to use their home handsets to connect to parts of the telephone network they weren’t supposed to access and from there they explored its inner workings. Some of these nerds went to work for the network, others became engineers, some were pioneers in the computer industry. Steve Wozniak was one of those telephone network explorers, and he went on to co-found Apple.

There were calculating machines before the 1940s, and some of them were called computers because they…well…computed things. But the computations were limited, for instance an entire machine might be dedicated to computing ballistics trajectories. These machines were developed, maintained, operated and improved upon by nerds who would probably be computer geeks if they had been born in the past 15 or so years.

Counters on the Difference Engine
I like to think that the pioneering computer nerds were Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace Babbage, who were designing mechanical calculators (proto-computers) in the early 1800s. Babbage was a flake, but a genius. He had these astounding ideas for a machine he called the difference engine that could tabulate polynomial functions. He managed to get funding to build some, but then he had these even more astounding ideas for a mechanical computer that had conditional branching, loops and built in memory that made his original difference engine obsolete--at least in Babbage's mind--so he gave up on building the original machine in order to develop the more complicated machine, much to the government’s consternation.

Prior to this, you had people programming looms using paper tape or punched cards in the early 1700s.

At some point back there in the mists of time we get too far away from computers to say what the computer nerds would be doing, but I’d put my money on some sort of engineering or inventing that involved connecting different inputs to get an output, which could involve broad fields such as mathematics and chemistry, or more specific occupations like railway engineering, managing electrical power transmission, and designing the Paris underground sewer system.

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