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Researching for this question I ran across this 1978 advertisement for Sperry:

Sperry Computer Ad 1978: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I74sVdw7gkc

The computer is nicknamed "B.C." and the actor says (in part):

What I really like about BC is he speaks and understand English, so we don’t need a professional programmer. […] It only took us a few days to get to know each other, and now it gives me any fact I need in seconds.

Question: In what way could the Sperry Univac BC-7 computer "speak and understand" English? How was this different from previous computers?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I74sVdw7gkc

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    Note that in the video keys are depressed to get screen results. I think the "speaks English" is marketing spiel for "English like commands in the CLI". I have experienced marketing misrepresentation of my software in a similar vein! – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Feb 1 at 7:27
  • @BrianTompsett-汤莱恩 yes I think you are right and there isn't an audio interface, and perhaps it refers to an English-like syntax. – uhoh Feb 1 at 7:30
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    Like more modern SQL, which is pretty much "plain English", but a pretty talkative one... – tofro Feb 1 at 8:16
  • @tofro that's exactly what I was thinking: a Natural Language query language for existing databases. – RonJohn Jul 3 at 12:03
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From the perspective of today and looking backwards to the use of language in this commercial we apply different semantics than would have been perceived at the time. The same is true when interpreting anything historical - we just don't expect it to apply to something (relatively) so modern and contemporary.

I was, at the time of this commercial, performing research into computer languages and also operating system command languages. At that time computer languages, whether for programming or operations or interaction were considered arcane and specialist and not suitable for "common business use". It was a problem being worked on by many academics and spawned a number of publications at that time.* The titles of some of these seminal works will hint at what was going on:

  • Barnett, M. P. (1969). Computer programming in English. Harcourt, Brace & World.
  • Barnett, M. P., & Ruhsam, W. M. (1969, May). SNAP: An experiment in natural language programming. In Proceedings of the May 14-16, 1969, spring joint computer conference (pp. 75-87). ACM.
  • Barnett, M. P., & Ruhsam, W. M. (1968). A natural language programming system for text processing. IEEE transactions on engineering writing and speech, 11(2), 45-52.
  • Barnett, M. P. (1970). SNAP—A programming language for humanists. Computers and the Humanities, 4(4), 225-240.

The movement was, that if we could utilise the power of the natural language understood by the user they could become "power users" without the need for the intervention of a third party (the operator or programmer):

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COBOL was originally written from this perspective, which is basically "VERB" "NOUN" type commands, where the verb and noun are recognised English words. A further development in this vein is what we now know as SQL:

  • Chamberlin, Donald D; Boyce, Raymond F (1974). "SEQUEL: A Structured English Query Language" Proceedings of the 1974 ACM SIGFIDET Workshop on Data Description, Access and Control. Association for Computing Machinery: 249–64.

So at this time, any interactive command interface that used English verb/noun constructs was understood to be "Understanding English" and the advertising copy-writers pushed it as such.

I had interactions with Sperry at about that time and I am sure they felt they were including some state-of-the-art interfaces with their systems to make them business useful tools, but I'm sure Grace Hopper felt the same about COBOL.

From today's perspective none of this looks like using or understanding the English language on the part of the computer.


*  It took me a while to dig through my archives and look at the old thesis and papers again.

  • Really thoughtful and well-sourced answer! I'll enjoy reading this one, thank you! – uhoh Feb 1 at 17:13
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Certainly that machine does not "speak english"; that is a very hard problem that computer scientists struggle with even today.

Although the BC7 System Description says

Dialog between the BC/7 and the operator is in English

it also says

The commands to the BC/7 are short and simple

They cannot both be true, given what we know English to be. But of course, it's vague marketing speak for "use English-like words to instruct the computer".

Particularly, section 3.6 of the manual specifies more closely what this means:

The System Control Language is used to operate the BC/7. SCL commands are simple English verbs that specify programs to be executed and identify the files to be used.

So the guy on the advert typed in "inventory" at some prompt, and the computer displayed the inventory. And that is believable.

  • I'm wondering if the interface used a syntax that was English-like in some way? e.g. "print inventory between X and Y on day=Z to printer P" – uhoh Feb 1 at 7:28
  • I've adjusted the title slightly, but I don't think it has an impact on your answer. – uhoh Feb 1 at 7:33
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    I have expanded the answer a little in response to your changed title. – Wilson Feb 1 at 7:46
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    I guess as much "plain English" as DELETE <FILE> is in DOS. – tofro Feb 1 at 8:18
  • @tofro I suppose so. But you could define your own verbs according to your business's needs. INVENTORY for that guy could have been defined as SELECT SKU, STOCKLEVEL FROM GRNS IF STOCKLEVEL > 0 or something like that. – Wilson Feb 1 at 8:34

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