• By Renee Bassett
  • July 31, 2020
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By Renee Bassett, InTech Chief Editor

Automating. Optimizing. Problem-solving. What is it that automation engineers are doing exactly?
While compiling information to honor ISA’s 75 years of service to the world of industrial automation and instrumentation, I’ve combed resources covering the history of computer programming. It turns out that whether you’re creating systems for banking, breadmaking, or bantering over the Internet, the activities are similar and the milestones are the same.

In the introduction to an article on Slate called “The Lines of Code That Changed Everything,” Clive Thompson writes, “The most consequential code often creates new behaviors by removing friction. When software makes it easier to do something, we do more of it.”

Slate editors polled computer scientists, software developers, historians, and others to create a list of 36 pieces of code that influenced what came next. Many entries show how the history of programming is the history of automation and control, starting, for example, with the invention of the punch card—in 1725.

“Binary programming long predates what we think of as computers,” writes Elena Botella of Slate. She says Basile Bouchon is believed to be the first person to punch holes into paper and use them to control a machine: A punched-hole “one” and nonpunched “zero” controlled the weaving pattern of a loom. “As much as things have changed since then, the essential building block of code has not,” she says.

The Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the first programmable electronic computer. Built in 1945, it was configured for each new problem by wiring connections between its many components, says Thomas Haigh, co-author of ENIAC in Action: Making and Remaking the Modern Computer. The completion of one task, such as a subtraction or addition, triggered a pulse that started the next task. “But a few years later, Klára Dán von Neumann and Los Alamos scientist Nicholas Metropolis wired ENIAC to run the first modern code: hundreds of numerical instructions executed from an addressable read-only memory—ENIAC’s function table switches.

Grace Hopper, a programmer in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, knew that her superiors in the military struggled to understand the binary code she was fluent in. She reasoned that if programming languages could be based on human language, they could be more accessible to people without a PhD in mathematics. So, in 1952 she created a set of instructions that could convert English language code into the lower-level binary code processed by a machine. With this compiler, she and her lab developed FLOW-MATIC, the first programming language to incorporate human-readable words.

So, what were Basile, Klára, Nicholas, and Grace doing? The same thing programmers and engineers around the world have been doing since: making it easier to do something in order for that something to be repeated faster, easier, and more reliably.

It takes a special person to do that well. As Thompson describes in his book, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, such friction-removers have “the distinctive psychology of this vocation, which combines a love of logic, an obsession with efficiency, the joy of puzzle-solving, and a superhuman tolerance for mind-bending frustration.”

Sound like you? Send a story about your early years in automation to 75in2020@isa.org, and it might make it into our commemorative issue. You can also reach out to me at rbassett@isa.org or www.linkedin.com/in/rrbassett.

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About The Authors

Renee Bassett is chief editor for InTech magazine and Automation.com, and publications contributing editor for ISA. Bassett is an experienced writer, editor, and consultant for industrial automation, engineering, information technology, and infrastructure topics. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from Indiana University, Bloomington, and is based in Nashville.