In the beginning: clocks and computers

Would you believe that it was the innocent clock that was the in-spiration for the computer that controls most of our lives? That's right. It's a fascinating story.

Way back when the faithful needed to be told when to come to prayer, the church needed an accurate clock that made a noise. Clocks developed with round cylinders that turned the hands, and those cylinders had bumps that tripped a lever that rang a bell. (Are you with me so far?)

Well, around the time that clocks became accurate enough that they no longer had to be set according to a sundial or an hourglass, the bells that they rang became more and more elaborate in their sequences. The chimes of Westminster are a good example, or the tower bells of Wells Cathedral, which were made in 1450. This involved a very intricate series of bumps or cams. You can find examples of these in every modern music box. These cams also turn figurines on the clock towers.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest - France - the Dukes of Burgundy, who in their time were the richest of the rich, were interested in creating lively fabric patterns for clothing. Up until then, everybody wore gray wool and was dreary. But the happy court of the Burgundian dukes could do anything, and money always helps. So within a hundred years or so (things took more time in those days) someone had taken a clockwork apart and added the cylinder with the bumps to a loom. Before that time, colored thread had to be added to the loom by hand ... which is why everyone wore gray and was dreary. The clockworks added the thread automatically every time and in the same place. Everyone was happy, and none wore gray, and the court of Burgundy was livelier than ever.

But humans being what they are, the clothing patterns kept getting more and more intricate. Wooden cylinders with cams became larger and larger - overwhelming, in fact - and just when things looked their bleakest, along came the Industrial Revolution. An enterprising person turned the cylinders inside out, and instead of cams there were now holes. Then, to really simplify things, each pattern was put on a card so they could be interchangeable. These cards ran in sequence through the loom, and once again everyone was happy.

Again in another part of the forest, this time America, immigration was on the rise and the great bureaucracy that we know today was also building, and they wanted to count everybody. Bureaucrats love paper. Well, each person was given a card, and holes were punched to denote whether this person was male or female, single or married and so on. Things are starting to sound familiar, aren't they? Those punchcards became binary notations, and those binary notations were the magic formula that made the first computer work.

So, if our ancestors hadn't needed to know the correct time to pray, this may never have been written on a Hewlett-Packard PC.

TALKING OF COMPUTERS, I saw a very different production of "Richard III" presented by the Seattle Shake-speare Company. It was a chamber production with only seven live actors, accompanied by digital images and video images created by Richard's laptop computer.

The Wars of the Roses become a hi-tech boardroom battlefield. Rich-ard's brother is the newly crowned successor. Amidst the celebrations, the ever-so-charming-and-cunning Richard plots his way through the family business to reach the top. Soon relatives and associates will be fighting for their lives. A hostile takeover was never so deliciously vengeful.

As a dedicated English history major, Shakespeare maven and member of the Richard III Society, I should have been horrified. But it was terrific!

I highly recommend taking your whole family to see it. The show runs through this Sunday, Jan. 29. For further information, contact the theater at 733-8222 or, if you've further questions, call me at 282-8161.

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