Superman extract

The most extraordinary mechanism in the world, so far as human knowledge runs, is also the most compact. A European medium-sized car weighs around 18 hundredweight, measures 170 inches in length, stands just over 50 inches high, and (at the cost of enormous expenditure on labour and manufacturing equipment) will do only three things - start, run and stop: a mere fraction of the super-machine’s capabilities.

In further contrast, the super-machine is tiny: seldom longer than 72 inches, or, in the West, shorter than 60 inches. Weight varies more; 100 lb. and 200 lb. are both well within the normal range. But even at the top of that range, the super-machine will normally fit comfortably into a cylinder with a circumference of 50 inches. Inside this neat package is a mechanism of exquisite complexity, using many of the most elegant chemical and mechanical principles known to science or engineering, sometimes in ways so abstruse that their secrets have never been fully mastered.

Despite this complexity, and despite a regrettable lack of protection against shock and external or internal damage, the super-machine seldom goes seriously wrong during an operational span ten times as long as that of the average car. It does depend, again vulnerably, on a few critical components, whose failure will mean total failure. But the design and efficiency of these key components is so excellent that this weakness is rarely disastrous.

In any case, the super-machine can often go on working well, even if with somewhat reduced overall efficiency, after severe damage to the key components. Of these, the most fascinating is the central computer. If the whole super-machine is a compact marvel, the computer is an amazing miracle of miniaturization. It can vary in size by 100 per cent; but size makes absolutely no difference to its phenomenal capabilities. Its operational powers are more elastic by far than those of other computers. The greatest product of IBM is elephantine by comparison.

True, in certain mechanical functions, such as calculation or the infallible retrieval of stored data, the super-machine is notably less efficient. But it makes up for this defect by its fantastic degree of flexibility. The super-computer can leap whole stages of data-processing at will, taking shortcuts to its destination with a brilliance that cannot even be contemplated by gigantic computing machines.

The super-computer can make analogies across the whole range of its stored data. It can communicate by sight or sound, in many variations and combinations of both, and by a number of other means, some unique. The 'housekeeping' function, ordering and storing the operating procedures, which absorbs so much of the time of inferior and larger models, is done automatically and with no difficulty at all. The super-computer’s automatic routines, in fact, are as impressive as its voluntary ones. It also has the wonderful faculty, not only of acting either automatically or independently, but of doing both at the same time. Its power consumption, moreover, is remarkably low.

Looked at from the angle of this computing capacity which outdoes science fiction, the super-machine can be defined as a support system for the super-computer. The entire elaborate apparatus, seen from this viewpoint, exists to protect, nourish and house the computer and to supply such services as the computer demands.

Yet this produces an instant paradox. Since all the functions of the support system are directly controlled by the super-computer, it can just as well be argued that the computer exists for the sake of the machine. In truth, the two are inseparable. Although they can be discussed separately for convenience, the distinction is meaningless: as meaningless as ‘Which came first, the chicken of the egg?’

Even the physical powers of the super-machine, which in their own way are prodigious, owe more to the skills of the super-computer than to the physical prowess of the machine itself. Like the car, the super-machine can start, run and stop. But it can’t do these simple tricks especially well. The fastest speed a super-machine has ever recorded is 13 miles per hour and that was a special model on a very short run. Normal models can rarely manage three-quarters of this speed, and over longer distances (for which the super-machine has a remarkable but still restricted range) the fastest speed regularly achieved is a mere 12 miles per hour.

As with speed, so with power. The super-machine cannot, except in the most extreme cases, lift twice its own weight unaided, which is pathetic by the standards of many other devices, organic and inorganic. The combination of its soft casing and poor engine (in terms of relative power output) place the super-machine at a permanent disadvantage in terms of brute strength. But just as the super-computer compensates for its unreliability by flexibility, so the super-machine generally makes up for its feebleness by versatility, dexterity and an unapproached ability to couple itself with other machines.

The coupling facility enables the super-machine to move and lift with both speed and power unknown to the organic world. The dexterity is beyond the capacity of competitive mechanisms, not only because of the phenomenal computing power harnessed permanently to the machine, but also because of the superior articulation of the machine’s attachments. With these, it makes contact with the materials it uses: with them, it translates the super-computer’s instructions into marvelous reinforcements of its natural powers - even the manufacture of hard protective shells for its own vulnerable, soft container.

The permutations and combinations of the none too numerous movements which this marvelous machine can manage are for all practical purposes infinite. Yet most models use only a restricted number of the available skills. In this limitation, they exemplify one of the other marked and puzzling characteristics of the super-machine. This is its tendency to operate far beneath capacity.

In one respect, the machine performs much better than anybody has a right to expect. The cheapness and sparse quantities of its component materials seemingly bear no relation to what they can achieve in combination.

B. A. Howard has listed the components as
enough water to fill a 10-gallon barrel;
enough fat for seven bars of soap;
carbon for 9,000 lead pencils;
phosphorus for 2,200 match heads;
iron for one medium-sized nail;
lime enough to whitewash a chicken coop;
small quantities of magnesium and sulphur.

This unpromising collection of common or garden substances has been assembled, moreover, to produce a ludicrous degree of overkill. A Russian professor named Anokhin has worked out that the super-computer can make so many electrochemical interconnections that there is no apparent limit to its abilities: the number 1 is followed by 10.5 kilometres (6.5 miles) of typewritten noughts.

Even in the field of physical performance, super-machines which are being pressed to the limits of their capacity usually stop measurably short of those limits. The under-performance in the physical sphere is probably not considerable in the case of the special models concerned. But they stop short as the result of decisions taken by the super-computer, over which its support system has little control. Still, the computer is in no position to cast any stones. Even its fabulous normal performance falls a long way short of what it can achieve with training; and its trained achievements in turn only utilize a fraction of the transcendent power represented by those ten and a half kilometres of noughts.