October 16th, 2007

Emmanuel Goldberg and His Knowledge Machine by Michael Buckland

As far as biographies of scientists / computer people etc. go I would rate this up there with the best e.g. Andrew Hodges biography of Turing. (*)

My chief interest in Goldberg was that he had invented and built a device resembling the Memex as described by Vannevar Bush in his often cited but less often read essay 'As we may think'.

Unfortunately, the history of technology is rarely kind to people from the non-English speaking world - see also Konrad Zuse whose autobiography 'The computer, my life' I will discuss at some point - and in addition to this problem
a) many of his papers, devices etc. were destroyed in the fire-bombing of Dresden
b) others were lost in a flood in his factory in Israel, where he emigrated after leaving Germany
c) the 'official' history of Zeiss Ikon favours someone who took over after he was forced out

As with Zuse, although for different reasons, there is a sense of unfulfilled promise, having emigrated to Palestine under the British Mandate he concentrated on building up an optical industry there, working with meagre resources, so although he invented many things there, it was all much more low tech than the work he had done in Germany until that point, and having had a working Memex like device, the 'Statistical Machine' in the early 30s, he did no more work on it after that point.

The book is interesting for things it tells one that you are, for want of a better term, not taught in school. Obviously one is told about Britain being 'the workshop of the world', but books on technical history make it clear that in many ways the US and Germany were pre-eminent even before World War 1. Another thing not often mentioned here is that John Logie Baird's work was essentially funded by German companies, he was in a consortium of 4 companies of which the other 3 were German. Then, as I mentioned before, there is the story of Palestine during the League of Nations mandate.

Goldberg's life was not without incident, and throughout the book there are throw-away lines that made me think that if Neal Stephenson were writing about him rather than Turing etc. that the particular incident would be good for 2 or 3 chapters, most obviously his kidnapping by Nazis and his secret work for the Hagunah (underground Jewish defence force).

As befits a book written by a professor of Information Management and Systems, published by Libraries Unlimited, it is amply annotated and has an extensive bibliography.

(*) I see incidentally that Hodges has a new book out http://www.cryptographic.co.uk/onetonine/ (see here for Hodges' home page http://www.synth.co.uk/ )