Moshe Kam IEEE President
 
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Appointment of Dr. Moshe Kam to Dean, Newark College of Engineering
3 April, 2014

ENGINEERING AS A LIBERAL ART: an address to the Edinburgh International Cultural Summit (The Debating Chamber, Scottish Parliament; Edinburgh, Scotland; 14 August 2012)
14 August, 2012

Comments during the dedication of an IEEE Milestone on the World’s First Reliable High Voltage Power Fuse, 1909 (3 August 2012, Chicago, IL, USA)
3 August, 2012

Comments at the Dedication of the IEEE Milestone Mainline Electrification of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 1895 (21 June 2012, Baltimore, MD)
9 July, 2012

Comments at the installation of the Iota Lambda Chapter of Eta Kappa Nu at the University of Hong Kong (13 January 2012)
13 January, 2012

Comments at the Unveiling of the IEEE Milestone on the Apollo Guidance Computer, Cambridge, MA
13 December, 2011

Roger Pollard (1 June 1946 - 3 December 2011)
4 December, 2011

As 2011 draws to a close...
3 December, 2011

Member Letter – U.S. Hurricane Irene/Floods
10 September, 2011

Message to IEEE Volunteers and Members in Japan
14 March, 2011

It Is About Value (Not About Price)
11 February, 2011

A Small Miracle in Hyderabad
27 January, 2011

So you are traveling a lot, eh?
17 January, 2011

How Should We Proceed with IEEE’s Humanitarian Efforts?
1 January, 2011

IEEE and Haiti
20 January, 2010

A Most Impressive Quasquicentennial in Hyderabad
7 January, 2010

My New Year Resolution - Seeking Less Experienced Volunteers
2 January, 2010

Mail about IEEE Spectrum article - Powerless in Gaza
26 December, 2009

The list of new IEEE Fellows is out
15 December, 2009

In praise of three tough guys from Trinidad
25 November, 2009

Who will be the 50th President of IEEE?
23 November, 2009

Smart Grid and Standards Search - the Board of Directors approves new initiatives
22 November, 2009

Globalization and Music - a Visit to the IEEE France Section
12 November, 2009

Moshe Kam elected IEEE 2010 President-Elect
7 October, 2009

 

Comments at the Unveiling of the IEEE Milestone on the Apollo Guidance Computer, Cambridge, MA

Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends and Colleagues: 

I was honored to be asked by the IEEE Board of Directors to represent the Board in this important recognition event of the Apollo Guidance Computer Milestone.  The significance of the Apollo Guidance Computer is of course obvious, when one considers the application and the history of its use, namely the role that this important device had played in the course of the Apollo program.  However, this computer serves as a milestone for much more than its application, as spectacular and as important as this application had been.  

We are celebrating this computer also for its being, when implemented and unveiled, a machine of a completely new kind – in its use of integrated circuits, of course, but also in its architecture, its design philosophy, its reflection of a distinct view of maintainability and reliability, and its original user interface, the dis-key.  In fact the very idea of using a digital computer for computations for the equations of motion of electromechanical devices and other objects – rather than using analog computers for the task – was new.  In many respects, the Apollo Guidance Computer actually gave birth to the discipline of digital control.

 It is easy to make nostalgic allusions as to how much we have progressed since the introduction of that computer – in processing power, form factor, storage, and speed.  How much the computers we wear and carry in our pockets are superior.  Such observations are of course correct, but they are also a bit trivial – we have been on a progressive, ever expanding technological path for more than 150 years now, and our machines, certainly almost all of our complex human made machines, have become much better in their performance every decade. 

What such comparisons, however, do highlight is how much the designers of the Apollo Guidance Computer were able to accomplish with a machine of such limited means, and how amazing the software that they wrote was, being able to squeeze from the limited hardware infrastructure such levels of reliability and performance. 

Consider the computer’s virtual machine, which performed complex instructions and did advanced mathematics with all of 2k of memory and 32k of storage; earlier, with even less.  Consider “the real-time Operating System that managed transition between native instructions and the instruction set of the virtual machine, which let developers mix and match the hardware level instructions with the virtual instructions within the same assembler code.  The complexity of those operations is simply mind boggling for someone who grew up writing in any high-level language such as BASIC, Pascal, or C” and its descendents.

What is no less important is the set of new structural and technical elements that were introduced, demonstrated and exercised by the new computer, elements that had a long time impact and in some cases a lasting effect on computer design technology.  These are quite a few – from the calculator style interface (which has become the norm in control panel interfaces of this kind), through the sophisticated software interpreter and the multi tasking capabilities, to the role that this computer played as the basis for subsequent experimental fly by wire systems – of the kind installed on the F-8 Crusader, and later – after additional development – on the Space Shuttle. 

The Apollo Guidance Computer was therefore important in its own right but also highly significant in transforming the industry, and in blazing a trail for many computer designs that followed.  For those who fail to understand why visionary, seemingly ostentatious objectives such as space exploration are important beyond their immediate objective; why such grand projects always bring collateral benefit; and how this benefit quite often surpasses the benefit of the original objective; the Apollo Guidance Computer is a shining example.  At one point we probably would have gotten there anyway, but with the needs and strict constraints of the Apollo missions we have arrived there better, more efficiently, more elegantly, and most importantly – much much faster. 

To put the Apollo Guidance Computer Milestone in IEEE context, let me tell you that this computer is joining today several others which we have recognized over the years.  These include the Atanasoff-Berry Computer of 1939 (the milestone is in Ames, Iowa); the computers of the US Naval Computing Machine Laboratory 1942-1945 in Dayton Ohio;  the 1946 ENIAC which was of course recognized in Philadelphia; the WEIZAC computer, 1955 in Rehovot, Israel;  Sharp’s electronic calculators (in Tenri City, Japan); and the HP-35, recognized in Palo Alto, California.

To these predecessors and successors, we are honored to add today the Apollo Guidance Computer, one of the finest and most important computing machines ever devised.  There is a popular quotation of Eldon Hall saying that had the complexities of the eventual Apollo Guidance Computer been understood when the design team began to work on it, the team would have never started, since its members would have considered the computer far outside the available technology of the early sixties.  We are here today to express awe and admiration to those who did tackle the task, and to express the gratitude and appreciation of the community for their brilliance, ingenuity and originality, as well as their persistence, hard work, fortitude, and, most importantly, their vision and courage.  Thank you.    

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Parts of this speech were quoted from:

(1) Grant Robertson “How powerful was the Apollo 11 Computer?” http://downloadsquad.switched.com/2009/07/20/how-powerful-was-the-apollo-11-computer/;

(2)  M.I.T. - Apollo Guidance Computer, http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/vs-mit-apollo-guidance.html

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Moshe Kam ( m.kam@ieee.org ) ECE Department, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
The opinions expressed on this website are the opinions of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the IEEE