A L Samuel - AI and games pioneer
Friday, 26 March 2010
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A L Samuel - AI and games pioneer
Checkers program

Software fades away as the hardware that runs it becomes obsolete. Such is the fate of all programmers who hope to leave something for history to remember.


One landmark that stands out clearly is the first computer game. It wasn't space invaders and it wasn't anything to do with Mario. It was written by a man whose work dated from the dawn of the computing era.



Arthur Lee Samuel (1901-90)

As with most computer pioneers Arthur Samuel started out as an electrical engineer. An early interest in electrical and scientific things lead him to Boston Tech - the old name for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The course involved spending some time in industry and while working for a valve manufacturing company he learned the arcane arts of making, evacuating and testing valves. He was so good at it that he was offered a research job on graduating but instead he opted to take an instructorship at the low salary of $1000 per annum. Throughout his college career he was very short of money and indeed personal finance was a concern of his throughout his life.

While at MIT he worked for a while with Vannevar Bush on the mechanical analog computer that became to be called the differential analyzer. In 1928 he joined Bell Telephone labs to develop a long-life valve for use in transatlantic telephone repeaters. While there he wrote a paper on a new gas discharge oscillator he had invented and was dismayed to find that it was heavily criticised for its poor style. This he took to heart and learned to write clearly and concisely - a skill that he would use time and time again in his future career.

In 1930 he bumped, by pure chance, into an old college mate on a street in New York and a year later they married. He worked on microwave tubes during the war and made significant contributions to their design. So much so that he had a large number of patents which towards the end of this life he thought of as his most important work.

At the end of the war he was a recognised authority on microwave tubes but a very underpaid one. Not only this but the work no longer interested him. He was convinced that something would soon replace the valves that he new so much about - it was time to move on. At 45 he felt the need to prove himself all over again.

Wanted - a computer

The solution was a move back to academica - Illinois University - and this is where it all changed. He started out by forming a vacuum tube laboratory, buying a plane and learning to fly. Then it happened. They needed to work out some details of the space charge - how the electrons spread themselves around a hot charged cathode. At Bell Telephone Labs this would have been done by teams of women "computers" with calculators. At Illinois computers of any kind were non-existent and so they decided to build or perhaps buy one.

Samuel asked for quotes for five or six companies and quickly realised that they would be paying for the companies to learn how to build a computer. He concluded that if they were to have a computer and they knew as much about it as anyone, except perhaps John Von Neumann at Princeton. Although he only asked for $90,000, Samuel got $110,000 for the project, and he visited the four places where significant computer work was going on - MIT, Harvard, Pennsylvania and the Institute for Advanced Study.

By the end of 1948 the project was already running out of money. The design was asynchronous and novel - and they needed more money. Someone suggested that in order to attract attention they should build a cut down machine and do something "dramatic" with it. Samuel had heard about Shannon's work on programming a computer to play chess and he decided that the thing to do was to program his machine to play checkers. He reasoned that if Shannon had already done it for chess then "it ought to be dead easy to program a computer to play checkers."






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