MISFIT DOC: Cocks, Dogs and Kilobytes

An excerpt from the 1780-page exploration of early computing in the United States, by Bryan Militia

What we today term “computer-science” was advanced hugely in Germany and England in the middle of the 20th Century, but in the Southern USA there were fledgling attempts at the same. Early computing in America was essentially the search to accurately predict the results of cock-fights. The mandate was there: anecdotal accounts tell us that most of, if not all, the important computer-scientist celebutantes loved to unwind (after a week of thinking about what games they might be able to play on computers once they were built) by putting their cocks in one another’s rings.

After a time, this hobby became big business, until not only did the major computational players seek a competitive advantage over their rivals, but also future funding potentially depended on the results of their gambling. Aged and unreliable eye-witnesses tell me that on the underground cock-fighting circuit in the US, every third spectator was a code-breaker, technician or computer-science luminary, and they were as bloodthirsty and hungry to make money as they were intelligent and dedicated to producing functional computing machines.

The greatest initial success came out of Houston, Texas, where a giant computer (“Amarillo Nancy”) the size of a New York brownstone would read hole-patterns in punch cards, and where research assistants would attempt to extrapolate meaning from the data sets: series of small holes would be punched into cards by chickens’ beaks (“cock-punching”) pre-fight, and then their subsequent victory or feathery death was recorded by pressing a giant green button the size of a steering-wheel, or by smashing a glass cylinder, respectively. After enough chickens had perished to produce a good sample size and a very pink-hued sand in rings across the nation, predictive patterns emerged that gave the creators of Amarillo Nancy an additional 4-8% chance of correctiscism with regards to results, and over a killing season this equated to reasonable profit; not enough profit to cover the purchase of the enormous quantity of coal needed to run the computer, but it was widely acknowledged that this elementary application of processing power was just the beginning, and that soon more complex functions would be able to increase the probability of predictive success significantly.

After Amarillo Nancy had peaked in terms of hole-pattern correlations, the researchers went on to investigate color and breed of chicken (point of interest, this line of inquiry would never be completed, as before this study culminated, a rudimentary computer-based pole-vaulting game, “Ping” was invented in 1967, and was so addictive that a generation of technology experts forgot or abandoned almost all projects—the so-called “FUBARBP men”, or Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition By Ping men). Despite no further progress being made with cock-punching, the Amarillo Nancy team (“Nancy boys”) was still the frontrunner in fowl-based research; efforts by other groups had led to nothing but disappointment and chicken corpses. One of these collaboratives left the computing field and started a successful local chain of fried chicken restaurants, “Tool Cooked-Up Chicken Corpses”.

The most promising competitor, a team led by Dr Leon Outarobocop, chose a different approach, skipping prediction in favor of manipulation, and attempted determining cock fight results via using a computer to supercharge fighting-chickens’ brains. The cock was inserted into a vacuum tube which swelled the head tremendously. While this engorgement took place, ticker-tape messages detailing fighting tactics were passed mechanically past the bird’s eyes (archives of these tapes reveal helpful missives such as “peck at the beak” and “when in trouble, flap flap flap!” The messages were written in English mostly but in some cases Spanish was also used to cater for Mexican chickens). Experts on physiognomy posited that the increased cranial size of the bird after treatment suggested superior cognitive abilities and increased fighting knowledge, but mediocre results showed otherwise: that in fact, the cocks merely had big, swollen, purple heads (the discoloration came from damage to blood vessels through vacuum-enlargement).

The enlargement process, as well as misguided and in some cases even counterproductive (anecdotal accounts describe top-heavy cocks wilting under their own weight, and also big-headed cocks being bullied by other, normal roosters), was power-hungry. When researchers ran out of coal after an area mining disaster, they tried feeding the monstrous machine stray dogs which were plentiful at the time. This was so successful as a strategy that it was adopted wholesale and used even after coal pits were reopened. Special tubes were fitted leading away from the furnace that spat out the bones. This is the origin of our expression “bone pipe”, meaning the exhaust area at the rear of a desktop computer, usually where the internal airflow is directed and expelled.

The discovery of dogs as a power-source spurred a tangential line of investigation—clean, renewable power. By 1950 more scientists were attracted to the field of computing overall, but many of these scientists were only interested in the logistics of computing and its energy-requirements. This was the start of genetic modification, and predated GM crop growth by decades. Not only were dogs selectively bred for girth, they were also injected with countless serums designed to make them grow bigger by way of their altered DNA. Huge dog farms sprung up all over New Mexico (“The Canine Plains”) to not only supply the needs of computer scientists but also for research into genetic modification and animal breeding as competitive scientific fields in themselves. The federal government briefly got involved in funding, more so than with computing, as the output of these industries was tangible: bureaucrats didn’t get on with the idea of “video games” and didn’t understand why people would want them when they had the fun of forms to fill out and documents to redact; also, puppies were very adorable, and puppy farms were ideal places for families to visit—by contrast, nobody wanted to see the giant, ugly computer machines sitting in dusty warehouses surrounded by bespectacled, bearded men.

The GM line of research was stopped in 1952 by presidential decree and is now the stuff of myth: it is tough to find any information on the Big Dog Race of this period outside of children’s books like Clifford The Big Red Dog (Scholastic Books, 1963). Known only to scholars of literature, the color of the famous giant dog-character represented Communism. When President Harry S Truman was made aware of the canine eugenics programs, he found it severely distasteful, given the dual threats of totalitarianism America had helped the world to end in WWII and now faced in the Cold War: the gigantic dog farms (in both senses) reminded Truman of the most evil ambitions of Hitler’s Aryan idolization, and also the ruthless collectivism of Communism. Also he loved dogs, especially their little wet noses. The atomic bomb and the recognition of Israel are the key products generally associated with Truman’s presidency, but did he also save us from hoards of rampaging mammoth-dogs? Or did he retard the progress of a clean and efficient source of energy that would have saved us from the effects of global warming and reduced reliance on oil, and thus global conflict? I suppose only time will tell. And we had better ask science what gasses dogs give off when they are burned, and if they are harmful to the ozone. But will it ever be able to tell us? And do we even want to know? And if so, why?


If you found this excerpt interesting, please note that the full manuscript is not widely available, as Bryan’s printer and internet is not working, but is forthcoming as soon as it is printed and picked-up in a publishing bidding-war.


Simon Pinkerton is plastered all over the goddamn literary and comedic internet like some unwanted fungus. He writes for all kinds of great mags, look him up @simonpinkerton, and check out his other Queen Mobs pieces especially.

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