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How long is a nanosecond?




Exactly how long is a nanosecond?

This Lore blog is all about standing on the shoulders of giants.

Back in February 1944 IBM shipped the Harvard Mark 1 to Harvard University. It looked like this:


The Mark I was a remarkable machine at the time, it could perform addition in 1 cycle (which took roughly 0.3 seconds) and multiplication in 20 cycles or 6 seconds. Calculating sin(x)  would run up to 60 seconds (1 minute).

The team that ran this Electromechanical computer had on it a remarkable young giant, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper, who went on to become a Rear Admiral in the US Navy before her retirement 43 odd years later. During her career as one of the first and finest computer scientists she was involved in a myriad of innovation.

In 1949 she proposed the concept of creating a human readable language made up entirely of English words to program a computer. Her idea was readily dismissed because "computers do not understand English". It was only 3 years later that her idea gained traction when she published a paper entitled "The education of a computer" on the subject. She called this a "compiler". 

In 1959 she was part of the team commissioned to develop a new programming language for business use. It was called COBOL.

But enough of the introductions already! If we had to go over everything Grace Hopper accomplished we would be here all day - here is the Wikipedia page on Grace Hopper for the uninitiated who do not know who this remarkable woman was.

I have never seen a better explanation of orders of magnitude and scale than the representation Grace Hopper was known for explaining how long a nanosecond really is. Here is a video from the archives of her explaining this brilliantly in layman's terms in just under 2 minutes.


I also love the interview Letterman did with her back in 1986 where she explained this briefly on national television. For television she stepped up her game a notch and took the nanosecond to the next level, also explaining through an analogy how long a Pico-second is!

This 10 minute interview really goes a long way in capturing the essence of who Grace Hopper really was, a remarkable pioneer in Engineering indeed!





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