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Too good to be forgotten #2: George Stibitz


Who? One of the pioneers of the computer that’s who. Which is enormous achievement in itself, and well recognised in computing history circles. But George Stibitz is on this list because as well as his groundbreaking technical work, he also left us with something much more touching as well.


When we say ‘digital’ in the context of technology, that’s because of him. One of the most versatile and powerful words of our time, that’s because of him. He’s the linguistic father of digital.


Stibitz was born in 1904, became a mathematical expert, including gaining a doctorate in mathematical physics, and in 1930 he joined Bell Labs, the research powerhouse formed in 1925 by the tech titans of the time, AT&T and Western Electric. The ‘Bell’ is named after Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.


Bell Labs was the genesis of all sorts of important scientific inventions and products such as transistors, lasers, calculators and lots of computing related work. Stibitz was critical in the development of computing technologies, such as when in 1940 he was the first person to control a computing machine remotely from another location.


But the reason we’re talking about him today is from War work he was involved in in 1942. On one specific project the two approaches were being referred to broadly as ‘analog’, that is outputs and signals measured by variable changes, and ‘pulse’, which referred to discrete changes or events which are then measured to give the output result.


Stibitz felt that ‘pulse’ didn’t really do the job for the second area, so he suggested ‘digital’. It wasn’t a new word. Digital comes from digits, a word centuries old meaning your 10 fingers and thumbs. Digits also then referred to the 10 numbers in our number system - 0 to 9. We live in a 10-based number world precisely because we have 10 fingers (and toes obviously) and so we intuitively understand the concept of 10.


Digital then also evolved to mean digits, ie fingers, used medically, when a doctor examines a patient by hand. But it wasn’t a particularly common word and definitely had absolutely nothing to do with machines, calculations, technology, computers and all that.


And now that’s what it means almost exclusively, which is perfect. Digital was a previously little used word that grew out of our most versatile and intimate body parts, our hands and fingers, which enabled us as a species long ago to discover how to count and use numbers.


Without Stibitz our digital world could well have been called something far more boring. Words help us understand and shape our environment. In describing our tech rich lives, Stibitz found the perfect one. Thanks Doctor!