Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

That's progress

Once upon a time the Monhegan Island yacht race was computerized. It was back when computers were fairly new, and one had been installed in the Portland headquarters of Hannaford Bros. Co., a wholesale grocery firm with retail stores in Maine, New Hampshire, and probably Vermont. Walter Whittier, my friend, had access to that computer and at the time was amazed even more every day at what the thing could do. It not only did all the arithmetic required for a business, but it kept a running inventory of every item stocked in each Red & White store, so that at the push of a button every cake of soap, for instance, would be accounted ofr including its cost and selling price.

This professor is by no means the first to meditate on the possibility of computing events to come. Walter wondered if his machine, competently operating his extensive system of markets, could assimilate and digest the "factors" involved in a yacht race, and he shuddered to think of the future if it could. there would be no need to play baseball, hockey, football, through an entire season and then through the playoffs, since a computer could bring off the results far in advance. Nations would not need to hold elections. Because Walter was himself a sailor, and the Monhegan Island race is a major Maine summer boating event, he chose it for his trial.

About these ads

The race starts in front of the Portland Yacht Club, proceeds easterly to circle Monhegan Island, and returns. Walter began assembling the information he would need to feed into his computer, and quite a few of his friends rallied to help him, so in a short time interest in the project consumed the waterfront, and even beyond. the measurements of each boat entered were available, but other important information had to be collected. Age, height, weight, complexion of each skipper. His educational achievements. Did he have military service? Political office? Size of hat band and belt length. Social Security number. then there was a long-range weather projection, based on records over the past 75 years. how about the tides and winds? When at last all was ready, the "committee" attended, and the management of the grocery firm was interrupted while the upcoming Monhegan Island yacht race was computerized.

It took a time to feed in what the machine needed to know. Walter explained that computers are accurate only tothe extent of the information to which they react. Human error, he said, must be considered -- and today, long after that day, we all know how true that is. Walter felt he had touched all bases. His committee agreed, so the lever was shoved and with a whirr out came the print-out and there, just as Walter had asked, were the ten leadingest boats in the Monhegan Island race.

We are, and we were then, unready for the computerized result. We are not about to accept the answer from a professor who computerizes the Miss America pageant, and we probably are not ready for any print-out of a presidential election. So Walter and his friends folded the computerized yacht race neatly and laid it away to be checked against the results of the actual race, to be held the following weekend. Some of the members of this computer committee were themselves skippers of racing boats, so they took off with the starting gun and there was no group as such to stand on the shore and watch how things matched up.

I wasn't there anyway, and know about this only from Walter's say-so, but he can be relied on for veracity. the projection was actually a success, in a way. It also included that computer flickering which Walter called human error. On Walter's list, the first eight of the ten boats were correct -- they finished in the order the machine had foretold. but in ninth place Walter had five hundred gallons of Bessey's apple cider vinegar, and in tenth place by three lengths was a carload of black pepper.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.