‘A Playful Space’

Steven Johnson took the Amphitheater stage inside the Chautauqua Institution. Johnson is an innovator and author P-J photos by Jordan W. Patterson

CHAUTAUQUA — Moments such as infamous battles, assassinations, civil rights marches and famous speeches are remembered in time forever, but Steven Johnson, innovator and author, argues there is another moment that should be added to the list: Moments of play that made the modern world.

Those moments were discussed on the Amphitheater stage inside the Chautauqua Institution. They include a long line of innovation that led to the creation of the first computer, and as Johnson told it, the creation of the computer began in 800 A.D. in Baghdad, Iraq.

Johnson has written 10 books that largely cover innovation and progress in modern civilization. Those books include “Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World,” “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” and “Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.”

Johnson also hosted an Emmy-nominated PBS series and contributes to news outlets such as Wired, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among others.

Johnson’s lecture detailed the history of play and innovation, and how it all led to the creation of the computer. But before traveling back to 800 A.D. to the Middle East, Johnson informed the audience who John Joseph Merlin was. Merlin, a clock maker by trade, was described by Johnson as a “classic tinkerer” most famous for the invention of roller skates.

Johnson also created mechanical dolls or automatons that mimicked lifelike movement.

In the late 1700s, Merlin opened up a shop called Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. In that shop is a moment in time that Johnson argues should be added the list of historic events never forgotten.

Merlin met with an 8-year-old boy and showed him the advanced technology of the automatons inside the museum. One mechanical doll was mimicking a lady interacting with a bird and another replicating a fluid moving dancer.

“Years later the 8-year-old boy is going to remember and reflect back on this exchange,” Johnson said. “There was something mesmerizing about this experience.”

The name of the boy was Charles Babbage who would later become an inventor famous for originating the earliest concept of a digital programmable computer. Johnson said ideas that were given to Babbage when he met Merlin functioned as seeds that would later shape his legacy. Like the ideas that influenced Babbage, Johnson discussed how Merlin was influenced by people thousands of years before his time.

In 800 A.D. at the height of the Islamic Golden Era, Johnson said there were three brothers who worked inside The House of Wisdom that would be considered in modern times as a think tank. The brothers would now be considered engineers and designers. Together they created documents with design ideas called “the book of ingenious devices.” Johnson’s takeaway from the innovation designs was that none of them were functional.

“Almost every device in the book … is a toy,” Johnson said.

Johnson praised the devices in their books as being “some of the most advanced engineering,” but admitted most of the ideas appear to be “child’s play.”

A device the brothers designed that wasn’t included in the book is the one that Johnson highlighted the most. This device was similar to a music box in design and essentially “a mechanical flute player,” as Johnson put it.

The device was named “the instrument that plays itself.” Within the device was an organ that was comprised of a pins and a rotating cylinder. The most fascinating aspect to Johnson was that the device played by itself and was essentially the first programmable machine. The cylinder’s code could be adjusted and a different song could be automatically played.

“This was a watershed moment in history,” Johnson said.

He said the 1,000-year-old creations has principals similar to modern computer’s software and hardware. Through music the “instrument that plays itself” remained relevant for many years later.

Johnson said this creation would influence Jacques de Vaucanson in France who applied this pin and cylinder concept to create numerous machines. In the 1730s, he used the much earlier concept to create fabric with textile machines featuring programmable patterns. In the 1800s, the machine was improved upon by Joseph Marie Jacquard by using paper with hole punches to program the machine instead of the pins and cylinders that were repetitive and expensive. The device would be known as the Jacquard loom.

Later in the 1820s and 1830s, those inventions would prove to influence a Merlin-inspired Charles Babbage.

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Babbage postulated that a similar code-instructed machine could be told to do math or simulate thinking.

Babbage created the difference engine and the analytic engine, both of which Johnson said never fully worked.

“Those machines were the first programmable computers ever created,” Johnson said.

Johnson noted that Babbage’s ideas were ahead of his time and never actually came to fruition.

“He was essentially trying to build a digital age machine in the age of steam power,” he said.

It wasn’t until Ada Lovelace wrote the first working line of code that the invention actually worked in the mid 1800s. Johnson described the code as the “first true software.”

Johnson admitted that efforts in World War II from Alan Turing breaking the Enigma Code also played intricate roles in creating the modern day computer, but argued that the history he detailed is just as important.

“If you only tell (the history of the computer) the conventional way you miss out,” Johnson said.

All this work leads to the work on the PDP1 mini computer that featured the first digital screen. To showcase and test the screen, computer scientists created a video game called Spacewar! After the game became a hit, digital video games became a phenomenon.

Soon the video game company Atari would create the famous space adventure Asteroids. And shortly after that, one of the programmers would leave Atari and go on to create his own computer company – his name was Steve Jobs.

Johnson used all of this history to argue that the next big invention will bloom out of people having fun, or at play.

While the majority of his talk focused on playful machines, he also emphasized the importance of playful spaces that he likened to that of the Chautauqua Institution. He said places like coffee shops in the 1700s and the introduction of caffeine sparked new ideas and innovation. While caffeine played a big part, he said the presence of a playful space inspired innovation as well. And assured the audience it will continue to do so in the future.

“You’ll find the future where ever people are having the most fun,” he said.