It was the mid-1940s and in a secret laboratory the size of a barn, a flock of scientists busily worked around a gigantic machine that filled much of the facility. Although there was no external writing on the machine, it would become known as ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, at the University of Pennsylvania, the harbinger of things to come.
“Where is that boy with the coffee?” demanded one scientist, halting his work with his slide rule for a moment and looking around.
“Here, sir!” shouted a young man rushing into the room with two paper bags full of cups of hot coffee. He started handing out the cups to the scientists, who obviously needed it, for they looked overworked and grumpy. “So, this is a big brain that does the work of people, eh?”
“How did you know that?” asked one man in a white coat, suddenly perking up.
“That’s what a girl in the coffee shop across the street told me,” the errand boy said. “Are you sure you want a machine doing people’s thinking for them? What if the wrong people get control of this, this – ”
“Computer,” supplied a bespectacled scientist rather proudly. “We call it a computer. But it’s secure here in the lab. How could anyone else control its information?”
“I’m just an errand boy, not a mechanic,” the newcomer said. “But if it computes, let’s say you ask it to calculate people’s paychecks or department store bills or hospital records. And what if other scientists – just as smart you all – decide they want that information, maybe they could, for lack of a better word, ‘hack’ into your records and steal people’s vital information.”
“That’s ludicrous,” snorted a bearded technician before sipping his coffee. “Why would anyone want to find out about other people’s bills?”
“I’m not sure, but maybe they would find a way to abscond with the $2.40 you guys owe me for coffee,” the deliveryman said, then added, “Plus tips, of course.”
“If that’s the worst thing someone could do with a computer, we shouldn’t worry,” the bearded one said.
“I suppose, sir. But what if our nation’s enemies found a way to thwart all your planning and steal everyone’s Social Security numbers or bank account numbers and even their cash? Or maybe they could even – God forbid – dig up information about us and steal our very identities.
“And what if computers become all the rage and everybody has one? Much smaller ones, of course, because look at this,” the coffee deliverer added, gesturing to the huge block of metal in the center of the room. “They conceivably could take the place of books and radio, and even telephones.”
The scientists all looked at one another and shook their heads.
“You have too much time on your hands, young man,” the bearded scientist said. “Just remember: Tomorrow, I’d like two sugars in my coffee.”
Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419