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This Week In Geek History: The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Compact Discs, and Whirlwind Foreshadows Operating Systems

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Every week we look at fascinating facts and trivia from the history of Geekdom. This week we’re taking a look at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Compact Discs, and Whirlwind, the first computer to foreshadow modern operating systems.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Appears on the BBC

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In 1978, this week in history on the BBC’s Radio 4, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first entertained listeners across the British Isles with tales of misplaced Englishman Arthur Dent and his inter-galactic exploits. Together with reluctant alien companions Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and of course Marvin, the deeply paranoid android, Arthur tours the galaxy, discovers improbable things (such as the manufactured nature of Mother Earth) and meets the man who controls the entire universe. The story underwent nearly constant revision as it was broadcast (many of the beloved characters were not added until later revisions), updated and broadcast again, and then ultimately polished and published in the book form by which most readers have come to know the epic and aloof sci-fi book and it’s “Don’t Panic.” missive.

First Public Demonstration of Compact Discs

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On March 8, 1979 Philips demonstrated the compact disc at press conference. Although this wasn’t the first public demonstration of the compact disc (Sony had done several for smaller audiences) it was the most widely received. A combination of the demonstration and the technology shown within it secured Philips a spot as the first group to truly showcase the medium to the public. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: the compact disc Philips demonstrated was smaller than the discs we have today. As it became apparent that CDs were going to take hold, Sony insisted on a disc large enough to hold the longest recording in their music archive: all 74 minutes of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This was one of the many standards that emerged from the Red Book, a joint effort between Sony and Phillips to ensure compatibility across players.

Whirlwind Demonstrates Primitive Operating System

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Whirlwind was a computer developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s. On March 8, 1955 Doug Ross gave a demonstration that wowed audiences using the “Director” tape. This paper tape was  a set of instructions that could be fed into Whirlwind that would effectively communicate with the machine and allow the operator to feed in different problems quickly and effectively without requiring a team of assistant programmers to completely reconfigure the machine between sets. Because of this Whirlwind was surprisingly nimble and able to quickly shift gears as new problems arose—unlike prior computers that required retooling between problems. The paper tape system and mechanical reader inside Whirlwind foreshadowed the future of computer use and historians note it as a pivotal moment in the concept of computer operating systems.

Other Notable Moments from This Week in Geek History

Although we only shine the spotlight on three interesting facts a week in our Geek History column, that doesn’t mean we don’t have space to highlight a few more in passing. This week in Geek History:

  • 1947 – Birth of Rob Reiner, director of The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap.
  • 1952 – Birth of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
  • 1986 – First Highlander film released, fans subconsciously prepare to forget the second.
  • 1999 – Death of Stanley Kubrick, acclaimed director of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket.

Have an interesting bit of geek trivia to share? Shoot us an email to tips@howtogeek.com with “history” in the subject line and we’ll be sure to add it to our list of trivia.

 

Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/10/11

Comments (6)

  1. Nik Simpson

    That’s “Radio 4″, not BBC4 :-)

  2. Jason Fitzpatrick

    @Nik Simpson: Indeed it is… and now I’ve outed myself as not British. Alas.

  3. Marvin Phillip

    All 3 of thes history facts coincedent whith my name and date of birth(march 8) :)

  4. Marvin Phillip

    Sorry march 8 8)

  5. LarryG

    Rob Reiner was also Michael Stivic (aka “Meathead”, Archie Bunker’s son-in-law) on the ground breaking TV series “All in the Family”, circa 1971.

  6. Jeroen

    And that would be Philips Gloeilampenfabriek, with the famous Natlab and written with 1 ell.

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