As a 1958 issue of Popular Science explained, these papers could contain clues to “H-power, interplanetary flight, more powerful batteries, longer-wearing tires.”
“The trouble is: Too few scientists and engineers read foreign languages. What we need is a machine to read one language and type in another: an automatic translator. We’re trying to build - not one, but several,” it read.
One of those early machines was the IBM computer mentioned in that Associated Press article that sparked my interest. The all purpose computer, described as “"the most advanced, most flexible high-speed computer in the world” when it debuted in 1952, was programmed to carry out translations. Two years later it was ready. Although it only had 250 words and six grammar rules it was enough for the media of the time to be suitably impressed. The 25 January 1954 issue of Chemical and Engineering News ran a story on the “enormous step” the machine had made “toward establishing intercultural communication”.
“A mathematical computer, IBM 701... has been converted into an electronic language translator, called the electronic brain. The brain's first language feat has been in translating Russian scientific literature, chemistry and engineering included, into English. A typist who doesn’t have the know-how in any language can work the machine,” it read.
The machine dominated coverage in the popular science and engineering press. An article in the October, 1958 issue of Mechanix Illustrated, explained how the “giant brain” worked.
“First, every word in a sizable English dictionary is listed on tape under a code number,” it said. “The Russian, French or German equivalents for each word are given the same number. Then, to translate from Russian to English, for example, a tape with the Russian code numbers is fed into the machine, which matches the numbers and prints out the English.”
The reporter goes on to describe an experiment, where the computer was asked to translate the English saying “Out of sight, out of mind,” into Russian. “The result was startling: ‘Invisible and insane’,” the article says. “Newer computers are much more sophisticated, and while human editing to rearrange awkward word sequences is still needed, the computer can make hundreds of rough translations in a day.”
Around this time, we also begin to see the idea of machine translation cross into popular culture. As we looked at previously, Sunday comic strips like Closer Than We Think were borne out of the Cold War and concern that Americans would lose the scientific and technological battles as much as they would lose a nuclear one. The 21 August 1960 edition of the Closer Than We Think strip intentionally ignored the obvious reasons that the American government wanted to develop such machines:
“In the world of tomorrow, you'll be able to talk in English and be understood by a Japanese who knows only his own tongue, or by an Ottoman Turk who's acquainted with his own language and no other,” it says. The picture shows what seems to be a foreign dignitary paying a visit to the White House. He has just stepped off his “vertiplane” which has landed in the garden and is shaking hands with a very formal gentleman carrying the “translator box”. The cartoon was inspired by a machine being developed by the US Air Force, the text explains. “Right now it operates at only 40 words per minute and is bulky and complicated. But miniaturization, combined with magnetic tape, suggests far more dramatic possibilities for the future - a translating box that might listen to one vernacular and instantly relay a verbal translation. Any language would then be usable anywhere, universally!”