Cracking the da Vinci code

Leonardo da Vinci, the original Renaissance man.

Cracking the genetic code of Leonardo da Vinci is no small task. Just ask Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. Or you could read our amazing interview with him.


“Announcing A New Era In Integrated Electronics” read the announcement Intel advertised in a new issue of “Electronic News” on this day in history, November 10 1971. Now, there may be a lot of hyperbole, overstatements and overpromises in advertising, but you have to give it to Intel here. They were right. The 4004 was the first commercially available microprocessor released by Intel. It had been previously designed for use by the Nippon Calculating Machine Corporation with the idea to craft a chip that could be programmed to fit in with any number of different products. The calculator manufacturer actually owned the exclusive rights to the chip after it was developed by Intel for them, but Intel was smart enough to later purchase the rights for commercial distribution.

Technology really can resemble a fine piece of art. The chief architect behind the chip was Federico Faggin, whose team completed the chip in January 1971. The Intel 4004, small enough to fit on a penny while boasting the same computing power as the first room-sized computer to be developed in 1946, was an amazing feat of engineering due to its innovative use of Silicon Gate Technology to squeeze 2,300 transistors onto a single chip — this effectively quintupled the speed of the chip compared to previous models. The artistic angle?  Faggin was so proud of the chip that he signed his initials on the flagship CPU for anyone who felt curious enough to peek inside to see. We think he earned it.


Feeling nostalgic for the golden era of Silicon Valley? Check out Computer Chess written and directed by Andrew Bujalski in 2013. Winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Sundance Film Festival that year, the film is rife with eccentric cinematography, early 1980’s geek culture, and several serious themes regarding the world of tech that, while prolifically discussed today, are only just starting to push through the cracks at a time when the vanguards of computer technology were essentially just splotchy kids in thick glasses carting around massive personal computers.

“Two sides, different colors, one of them has got to win, one of them has got to lose.” The movie is set at a nondescript California hotel, where computer aficionados have put on the eponymous “Computer Chess” tournament: different contestants competing over who has the best processing power to win chess games. It’s computers versus computers, not computers versus man — unless the entire premise of the tournament means that mankind is already deep in the rearview window. The movie is gripping as such, but the flick isn’t a one trick pony either — if you’re a fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley or an acolyte of 80’s tech culture, you’ll love the dark humor.


But to top off this week’s computer theme, we also have to recommend Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. Published in 1981, the book brings the reader into close contact with a team of engineers working themselves to death to push a new computer out to market. The story, actually, is grounded in a legendary tale of Silicon Valley fervor. Well, maybe not Silicon Valley since the New Machine in question is developed in Westborough, Massachusetts. The protagonist, and real-life nerd celebrity, is Tom West, a senior designer in the Data General Corporation who — partially out of good sense, partially out of desire to outdo another more glamorous design group in the company — starts a skunkworks project dedicated to building a new and improved 32-bit computer to win over a market quickly being lost to rival companies.

A crack team of mostly young eggheads is assembled to bring the machine to completion; hard work, in this case, is an understatement. The team works with a zealotry that quickly becomes a disturbing theme of the novel: who are these innovators who earmark nearly all of their daily lives for one mind-churning project? They certainly don’t do it for money, and if it is for the glory of inventing the next generation of computers then be prepared to take a serious look at what traditional understandings of prestige, success and healthiness translate to during this epic quest of nerds. “As they say,” reads the book, “the first step in fixing something is getting it to break” — and the computers, as may already be obvious, are not the only things that will break.