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In 1983, This Bell Labs Computer Was the First Machine to Become a Chess Master

Belle used a brute-force approach to best other computers and humans

6 min read
Belle was a winning chess-playing computer developed at Bell Labs in the early 1970s.
Check and Mate: Belle was a winning chess-playing computer developed at Bell Labs in the early 1970s.
Photo: Peter Adams

Chess is a complicated game. It’s a game of strategy between two opponents, but with no hidden information and all of the potential moves known by both players at the outset. With each turn, players communicate their intent and try to anticipate the possible countermoves. The ability to envision several moves in advance is a recipe for victory, and one that mathematicians and logicians have long found intriguing.

Despite some early mechanical chess-playing machines—and at least one chess-playing hoax—mechanized chess play remained hypothetical until the advent of digital computing. While working on his Ph.D. in the early 1940s, the German computer pioneer Konrad Zuse used computer chess as an example for the high-level programming language he was developing, called Plankalkül. Due to World War II, however, his work wasn’t published until 1972. With Zuse’s work unknown to engineers in Britain and the United States, Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, and notably Claude Shannon (with his 1950 paper “Programming a Computer for Playing Chess” [PDF]) paved the way for thinking about computer chess.

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Who Really Invented the Thumb Drive?

Thumb drive, USB drive, memory stick: Whatever you call it, it’s the brainchild of an unsung Singapore inventor

11 min read
Three monolithic thumb drives stand in a white landscape with blue sky and clouds behind them.
Maurizio Di Iorio
Blue

In 2000, at a trade fair in Germany, an obscure Singapore company called Trek 2000 unveiled a solid-state memory chip encased in plastic and attached to a Universal Serial Bus (USB) connector. The gadget, roughly the size of a pack of chewing gum, held 8 megabytes of data and required no external power source, drawing power directly from a computer when connected. It was called the ThumbDrive.

That device, now known by a variety of names—including memory stick, USB stick, flash drive, as well as thumb drive—changed the way computer files are stored and transferred. Today it is familiar worldwide.

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