Simon Willison’s Weblog


32 items tagged “history”


Strachey love letter algorithm (via) This is a beautiful piece of computer history. In 1952, Christopher Strachey—a contemporary of Alan Turing—wrote a love letter generation program for a Manchester Mark 1 computer. It produced output like this:

"Darling Sweetheart,

You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns for your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.

Yours beautifully

M. U. C."

The algorithm simply combined a small set of predefined sentence structures, filled in with random adjectives.

Wikipedia notes that "Strachey wrote about his interest in how “a rather simple trick” can produce an illusion that the computer is thinking, and that “these tricks can lead to quite unexpected and interesting results”.

LLMs, 1952 edition! # 23rd March 2024, 9:55 pm

The original WWW proposal is a Word for Macintosh 4.0 file from 1990, can we open it? (via) In which John Graham-Cumming attempts to open the original WWW proposal by Tim Berners-Lee, a 68,608 bytes Microsoft Word for Macintosh 4.0 file.

Microsoft Word and Apple Pages fail. OpenOffice gets the text but not the formatting. LibreOffice gets the diagrams too, but the best results come from the Infinite Mac WebAssembly emulator. # 13th February 2024, 4:06 pm


We like to assume that automation technology will maintain or increase wage levels for a few skilled supervisors. But in the long-term skilled automation supervisors also tend to earn less.

Here’s an example: In 1801 the Jacquard loom was invented, which automated silkweaving with punchcards. Around 1800, a manual weaver could earn 30 shillings/week. By the 1830s the same weaver would only earn around 5s/week. A Jacquard operator earned 15s/week, but he was also 12x more productive.

The Jacquard operator upskilled and became an automation supervisor, but their wage still dropped. For manual weavers the wages dropped even more. If we believe assistive AI will deliver unseen productivity gains, we can assume that wage erosion will also be unprecedented.

Sebastian Majstorovic # 8th December 2023, 1:34 am

DAK and the Golden Age of Gadget Catalogs (via) A must-read from Cabel Sasser, describing his ten year project to collect and digitize copies of the DAK gadget catalog, from 1972 to 1994. # 13th November 2023, 4:57 am

Translating Latin demonology manuals with GPT-4 and Claude (via) UC Santa Cruz history professor Benjamin Breen puts LLMs to work on historical texts. They do an impressive job of translating flaky OCRd text from 1599 Latin and 1707 Portuguese.

“It’s not about getting the AI to replace you. Instead, it’s asking the AI to act as a kind of polymathic research assistant to supply you with leads.” # 4th October 2023, 1:49 am

Leicester balloon riot (via) In 1864 a test flight of a new hydrogen balloon in Leicester’s Victoria Park attracted 50,000 spectators, and ended in a riot that destroyed the balloon. “Early in the afternoon there was a disturbance when a gentleman, claiming to be an aeronaut, announced that Britannia was not Coxwell’s newest and biggest balloon but an older model. This enraged the crowd who, shortly after 2pm, broke down the barrier and demanded that Coxwell take off immediately.” # 26th March 2023, 6:29 pm


[history] When I tried this in 1996 (via) “I removed the GIL back in 1996 from Python 1.4...” is the start of a fascinating (supportive) comment by Greg Stein on the promising nogil Python fork that Sam Gross has been putting together. Greg provides some historical context that I’d never heard before, relating to an embedded Python for Microsoft IIS. # 21st February 2022, 10:43 pm


The Tyranny of Spreadsheets (via) In discussing the notorious Excel incident last year when the UK lost track of 16,000 Covid cases due to a .xls row limit, Tim Harford presents a history of the spreadsheet, dating all the way back to Francesco di Marco Datini and double-entry bookkeeping in 1396. A delightful piece of writing. # 23rd July 2021, 3:57 am

The Digital Antiquarian: Sam and Max Hit the Road. Delightful history and retrospective review of 1993’s Sam and Max Hit the Road. I didn’t know Sam and Max happened because the independent comic’s creator worked for LucasArts and the duo had embedded themselves in LucasArts culture through their use in the internal educational materials prepared for SCUMM University. # 17th July 2021, 3:12 am


Elaborate Halloween Costume Tips from a 19th-Century Guide to Fancy Dress (via) The gilded age had some ridiculous parties. Here are highlights of the most popular costume guide of the era, now available on the Internet Archive. # 26th October 2017, 2:01 pm


Desk Depot. We picked up some chairs from here the other day—it’s a fascinating place, essentially an entire history of Silicon Valley told through second-hand furniture. # 13th January 2011, 3:50 am


What is the history of Django? I’ve been playing with Quora—it’s a really neat twist on the question-and-answer format, which makes great use of friends, followers and topics and has some very neat live update stuff going on (using Comet on top of Tornado). I just posted quite a long answer to a question about the history of Django. # 24th August 2010, 5:31 pm

Plugging the CSS History Leak (via) Firefox is fixing the nefarious CSS visited link colour history leak flaw, which currently affects all browsers and allows a malicious site to determine if you have visited a specific site by checking getComputedStyle against a link to that page. It’s an obtrusive but necessary fix—visited link styles will be restricted to colour and border styles (no background images and hence no more checkbox effects since the image request could leak information) and those colours will not be reported via getComputedStyle. I hope other browser vendors follow suit. # 31st March 2010, 8:01 pm

Vintage Ad Browser. Fantastic. 100,000+ vintage advertisements scanned and organised by date and topic, going all the way back to the 1840s and covering every decade in between. An absolute gold mine. # 6th January 2010, 9:04 am


Notes from the No Lone Zone. A computer scientist with a background in cryptography visits a Titan II ICBM launch complex. # 16th December 2009, 10:02 am

“I made the first animated under construction icon”. twoleftfeet on MetaFilter describes how he created the first ever Under Construction animation in 1995, after discovering his server-push animations could be replaced by the exciting new animated GIF. # 15th October 2009, 2:11 pm

Micro Men. “Affectionately comic drama about the British home computer boom of the early 1980s.”—aired last night, and on BBC iPlayer for the next week. I thought it was absolutely charming, as well as being a thought provoking history of the rise and fall of the British computer industry in the early 80s. # 9th October 2009, 12:47 am

History of Django’s popularity. “What sequence of events made Django the most popular Python web framework?”—insightful answers from Alex Martelli and James Bennett. # 4th October 2009, 10:29 am

Slouching towards Bethlehem. Photos of the various installations that contributed to the construction of the first atom bomb. # 15th July 2009, 10:19 am

Making the HTML5 time element safe for historians. PPK presents a detailed history of dates and calendars and points out that the HTML5 time element is ill prepared to faithfully represent the kind of dates historians are interested in. # 6th April 2009, 2:01 pm

Almost Perfect (via) W. E. Peterson’s book on the rise and fall of WordPerfect Corporation, originally published in 1994 and now available for free online. # 5th April 2009, 7:30 pm

The History of Python (via) “A series of articles on the history of the Python programming language and its community”, being compiled by Guido plus guest authors. # 14th January 2009, 9:42 am


Sam Vilain converted Perl’s history from Perforce to Git. [..] He spent more than a year building custom tools to transform 21 years of Perl history into the first ever unified repository of every single change to Perl. In addition to changes from Perforce, Sam patched together a comprehensive view of Perl’s history incorporating publicly available snapshot releases, changes from historical mailing list archives and patch sets recovered from the hard drives of previous Perl release engineers.

The Perl Foundation # 22nd December 2008, 6:06 pm

jQuery history plugin. I used this plugin to add back button support to a small Ajax app today, with great results. I tried it a while ago and it didn’t work in Safari, but someone has updated it since and now it works perfectly. # 7th November 2008, 5:32 pm

Explaining REST to Damien Katz. I didn’t know that it was Mark Baker back in 2002 who first pointed out that SOAP was flawed because it ignored the architecture of the Web as defined by Roy Fielding’s Ph.D thesis. # 17th August 2008, 11:19 pm

The Sea Forts (via) History and stunning photos of British World War II sea forts (kind of steel castles on stilts) seven and a half miles off the coast of Kent. # 27th April 2008, 10:51 pm

Happy Run Some Old Web Browsers Day! jwz has recreated, the original home of the Mosaic Communications Corporation, using a snapshot from 21st October 1994 and a domain borrowed from current owner AOL. Also includes instructions on running 1994 Mosaic Netscape binaries under a modern Linux distro. # 31st March 2008, 5:54 pm


Opera 9.5 alpha, Kestrel, released. “With history search, Opera creates a full-text index of each and every page you visit, and when you go to the address bar, you can simply start entering words you know have been on pages you’ve visited before, and items matching your search show up.” I just tried this; it’s magic. I’m switching back to Opera from Camino. # 16th September 2007, 8:34 pm

Paul Otlet described the “radiated library” in 1934. Beating Vannevar Bush in predicting something not unlike the Web by more than a decade. # 12th September 2007, 5:28 pm

AuditTrail. Add change tracking and history to a Django model with a single line of code. Doesn’t handle relationships though, which is definitely the toughest part of this problem. # 15th August 2007, 1 pm