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You’re trying to divide by zero

January 18, 2009


A scientist, testing a formula on Univac recently, was amazed to see the computing system stop, then automatically type the reproof: “You’re trying to divide by zero.” A quick check proved that Univac, as always, was right.

Click to image to read more. 1956 … good times.

  1. Miguel
    January 18, 2009 at 3:53 am

    Dang! I was sold on it (and even had my checkbook out ready!) until I got to the line “So don’t wait until 1957 … 1958 … or 1959”. I guess there’s no point now: They’re probably all sold out…

  2. January 18, 2009 at 4:45 am

    Forget these newfangled gadgets. You can’t go wrong with an abacus.

  3. January 18, 2009 at 5:24 am

    You can’t go wrong with an abacus.

    I’ve got modern, I use a slide rule.

  4. Mike
    January 18, 2009 at 5:37 am

    Those canned messages took up quite a bit of very precious space. I wonder how many “business english” phrases it stored?

  5. DLC
    January 18, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Hm. I am reminded of the movie “Collosus: The Forbin Project.”
    ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064177/ )
    but hey, Univac only took up a middling-small building.
    I wonder how long it too Univac to come up with “you are trying to divide by zero” ?

  6. Anon
    January 18, 2009 at 9:10 am

    The first canned message I got from a computer really freaked me out. It was Bowling Green State University, the computer was the size of a Greyhound Bus, kept in its separate room where we could watch it through windows; the teletype monitors could not keep up with our typing speed (since we had learned on first-generation IBM Selectric typewriters, after all), so we had to wait after each line.
    It felt like magic to enter a bit of code (BASIC, naturally) and see the teletype chug away. Of course, the laptop I am on now has more computing power than that roomful of machines, but this is just a laptop. That was a computer.
    Anyway, I was toying around, trying to figure out something else to do, and for whatever reason–none that I could see then or now–the monitor paused, then typed:
    …Rotwang saw some blood last night…
    That was it. Scared the shit out of me.
    Of course, that was close to 20 years after the UNIVAC, so near as I can tell, computers had advanced to the point of sentience by then, and we had entered the brave new world of carbon-based second-class status to our silicon masters.

  7. Richard Simons
    January 18, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I heard a story of a computer repair person who was poking around in the guts of a machine when the printer suddenly chattered. It had printed ‘If you touch me there again, I’ll scream.’

  8. Barry
    January 18, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Does anyone know what “It can now carry out commands given in simple business English” refers to? This was a few years before COBOL…

  9. mrcreosote
    January 18, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    “I can’t let you do that, Dave”

  10. January 19, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    I too was struck by the ‘simple business English’ thought.
    … and I still play with my slide rule occasionally, just for old times’ sake.

  11. January 19, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    The “simple business English” language would have been FLOW-MATIC, developed by Grace Hopper at Univac (and originally called just called B-0).
    IBM and Honeywell had similar business languages, though FLOW-MATIC was the first. DOD sponsored a standardization project which resulted in COBOL.

  12. yogi-one
    January 20, 2009 at 7:25 am

    Never forget: Univac is always right.
    Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”
    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
    The Revolution has begun….

  13. Dave Wisker
    January 23, 2009 at 11:29 am

    One of the best COBOL compiler errors/warnings I ever got in my past life as a mainframe programmer was:
    “Use of parentheses accepted but with doubts as to meaning”

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