Sherlock Holmes And The Computer

by Thomas H. Hunter

Allison Park, Pennsylvania - 1979


As I turned into 221B Baker street, a lorry was rumbling away from the curb. "Probably some new piece of apparatus for Holmes' scientific laboratory," I thought as I started up the steps, "As if he doesn't have most of the sitting room overrun already."

Yet, prepared as I was, I was still taken aback as I entered our flat. "Good Grief, Holmes!" I cried. "Can't I even go out for a walk to find our parlour invaded by some new infernal contraption?"

"Tut, Watson." said Holmes, turning from a typewriter-like device at which he was sitting. "I see that on your stroll you stopped at that delightful pub in Grosvenor Square; Your mac bears the imprint of the curious Japanese coat tree which they alone in all of London possess. By the various hairs on your sleeve I would say you have enjoyed the company of at least four different ladies. The splashes on your back are of a yellowish mud peculiar to Wadlow Street in the North Quarter, and from the soot and grime on your sleeves, I would say you have been working in a mill for at least five years. Quite remarkable, really, for an hour and a half walk."

"My gosh," I said, staring at the ragged sleeves which coverd my arms, "I picked up the wrong mac in the pub! But Holmes, what is this wheezing, clanking conglomeration of balloons and hoses? Surely you haven't given up your violin for a calliope?"

Holmes smiled at my naivete. "You are gazing on the marvel of the century - the TESLAVAC general-purpose data-processing system."

"Huh?" I said, mouth agape.

"We are going to see the end of crime in London, Watson, thanks to this 'infernal contraption' as you call it."

"But what does it do, Holmes?"

"Anything, Watson! That's the beauty of it - a machine that is not restricted to a single task, but can do anything you ask of it."

"But what is it doing now?"

"Er, nothing really." muttered Holmes as he tried to block my view of the clattering typewriter.

Drawing courtesy of Lee Hollihan "I say!" I said, as I reached behind the reddening detective to pluck the paper from the machine. "It looks to me, Holmes, as though this apparatus has beaten you hands down at crosses and draughts."

The following week found Holmes continuously at work on his computer, as he was fond of calling it. The air was thick with the clanking of the machine and the billows of acrid smoke from his puffing pipe. On the eighth day after the arrival of TESLAVAC he finally came up for air.

"Well, Watson," he said, opening the windows to let in the cool September breeze, "I suppose you are dying with curiosity to know how this marvelous device operates."

"Indubitably," I said, stiffling a yawn and trying to look interested.

"This machine operates on air pressure as do the older, and now obselete, analogue systems; but with two important differences.

"First, the old method used air pressure over a wide range to stand for numbers over an equal range, a positive pressure for a positive number and a negative pressure, or vacuum, for a negative number. The usable numeric range was limited, as you might imagine, by the strength of the hoses. This posed a severe restriction on the use of analogue computers.

"The largest machines used reinforced steel pipe in the aritmetic units, but this was only a partial solution. Although they could handle larger numbers, they became quite hazardous. A numeric overflow was now more serious than a simple burst hose.

"The day of the analogue computer was considered to have ended several years ago when the giant machine at the University of Moscow Computation Center exploded while calculating the effectiveness of a new toothpaste, killing four mathematicians, two operators and thirty-seven steamfitters.

"The new digital computers, as they are called, and of which TESLAVAC is an admirable example, use but two discreet air pressures - zero and five pounds per square inch - thus eliminating the possibility of dangerous pressure buildups which caused so many analogue disasters.

" And that brings us to the second major difference - all numbers are represented by just these two air pressures."

But Holmes," I said aghast, "That is not possible!"

"That, my good doctor, is where you are wrong," replied Holmes, who then spent the rest of the day demonstrating how any mathematical computation could be done using only two numerals. He showed me examples such as one times one and one divided by one.

I confess that all of this was well over my head and, considering his remarkable lack of success, I even wondered if my friend fully understood the principles he so glibly expounded. But only one who was not aware of his great scientific intellect could have doubted the abilities of the man, as he somewhat vainly tried to prove that any conceivable computation could be performed using only the numbers one and two.

Fortunately, just before Holmes' rapidly deteriorating temper reached the danger point, our landlady came to the door with a telegram in her hand. After she had retreated, Holmes vented his anger upon the hapless envelope by tearing it into small shreds.

It quickly became apparent that his somewhat improved humour was not to last. As he read the telegram, I saw his jaw tighten convulsively with a crunch and clatter as he bit his favorite meerschaum in two and the severed bowl fell to the floor setting the rug afire.

"What is it Homes?" I asked as I stomped the flames.

"Faugh!" he exclaimed and spat, nearly missing the cuspidor in his agitation. "A challange from my arch rival, Professor Moriarty... his computer against mine at the most difficult game ever divised by the mind of man - Monopoly!"

"Marvelous," I shouted, "Just the chance you've been hoping for."

"An insult," retorted Holmes.

"How so?" I asked, chagrined.

"His machine is an Edison Analogue. Faugh!" spat Holmes. This time he did miss.

The next evening Holmes was still in a foul mood. The burned spot in the rug was now accompanied by a well-worn path from his incessant pacing; and the air was sooty from smoke from his hatily repaired pipe. As I finished my evening meal, he turned and faced me through the slowly settling flyash.

"I give the man credit, Watson," he said. "He has me on the spot, so to speak. If I refuse I will become the laughing stock of the underworld."

"Then accept," I suggested.

"And walk into a trap," he said and resumed pacing. "The man is cunning, Watson. He offers a challange that I dare not refuse, yet cannot win. You see. despite its problems, there are certain calculations which can best be done on the analogue computer."

"And Monopoly is one of them!" I cried as I realized his predicament.

"Exactly. The man is a fiend, but a clever fiend. There is no help for it, Watson. I must play this farce out to the bitter end."

"Blimey," I said, dumbfounded.

Drawing courtesy of Lee Hollihan The sound of his pacing thundered through the flat. The little propeller on his deerstalker cap whirled furiously, and I am not sure but that but that some of the dense smoke trailing behind him did not come from his ears. Finally he halted, slamming his fist on the sideboard and nearly splintering it.

"Set up the board, Doctor. You know my piece - the little top hat. It is time I started programming."

I will not describe the rest of that month as Holmes played countless games as he refined his instructions to the machine and slowly improved its skill. The flat was littered with houses, hotels and shredded Community Chest cards. The floor was knee deep in the eight-and-a-half-inch wrapping paper that his automatic typewriter consumed by the roll. Suffice it to say that at last Holmes was satisfied that no further improvement was possible.

He wired the professor that all was ready; and the contest was set for the following day.

The big day dawned bright and clear as Holmes and I were stringing a bundle of hoses over the back fence to the small park in wellington square which had been chosen for the meeting because of its central location between our small flat and Professor Moriarty's mansion. Several of the Professor's ruffians were already setting up his apparatus, as we arrived with a remote typewriter to communicate via the hoses with the computer in our rooms.

As Holmes busied himself with the final connections, I was free to study our opponent's installation. It was not at all like oures, being a sizable collection of valves and pressure gauges mounted in orderly rows on a wooden frame. This was connected to a bundle of hoses, several times larger than than ours, neatly suspended on gaslamp posts until it disappeared around the bend on Pierce Avenue. I glanced at out own hastily stretched line - and, in so doing, caught holmes eye.

"Some day , Watson, every building in London will be linked by a network of hoses, such as these, to carry information from office to office at nearly the speed of a racehorse."

As he talked, he sauntered over to the momentarily deserted analogue console.

"And after that, perhaps the world. Oh Watson, would you check our hose where it lies on that picket fence? I'm afraid it might be pinched."

I walked to the edge of the park to check the hose in question and saw that it had come wedged between two slats on the fence. It was but a moment's work to free it. As I returned to our typewriter, Holmes was still standing at our opponent's installation, his hands deep in his pockets.

"It looks as though we are about to start." he said, turning. "Here comes our worthy adversary and over there, I believe, is Inspector Lestrade."

Indeed, Professor Moriarty and his bully squad were coming down Pierce Avenue; and young Inspector Lestrade, with the playing board under his arm, was approaching from across the square, flanked by two constables. It had been agreed that the contest would take place under Lestrade's watchful eye and that he would also be banker. Furthermore, at Moriarty's insistence, the game was to be played with real money. "Just to make it interesting," he had said.

For Moriarty, of course, the money was no problem; and, although Holmes led a miserly existence, his bank account was not inconsiderable owing to the generosity of many wealthy clients for whom he had performed services. Still, because of the large sums that would almost certainly change hands during the course of the game, my friend stood a fair chance of spending his retired years selling breadcrumbs to tourists on the steps of Saint Paul's.

The board was quickly set up and each contestant placed ten thousand pounds into the hands of Lestrade to finance the bank. The initial monies were then counted out and a preliminary toss of the dice determined that Holmes' machine would have the first roll.

The constable assigned to Holmes threw the cubes for a three, and Holmes rapidly entered the data into his remote typewriter. "Buy," was the word that flashed back, so sixty pounds and the deed to Baltic Avenue changed hands.

Seven for Moriarty and his constable picked up a card from the Chance pile; "Take a walk on the Boardwalk." Four hundred pounds went into the bank and Moriarty received the deed as he continued to spin dials to inform his machine of the progress of the game.

Two for Holmes whose machine advised him to buy the Reading; and five to make him a visitor at the jail.

He started to sweat as Moriarty rolled two fives, passed Go, rolled again and bought Connecticut Avenue and St. James Place - all in the same turn.

Agonizing hours later, as the sun approached its zenith and passersby on their lunch breaks watched the strange spectacle in rapt concentration, Holmes had managed hotels on Baltic and Medeterrainean. He held three railroads and both utilities, two yellows, two greens and one light violet. Moriarty had hotels on all three oranges and three houses each on the reds. He also held two light violets, two light blues, the Short Line, the remaining yellow and green and, of course, Boardwalk.

Oriental Avenue and Park Place were still unsold, and the players still held approximately equal reserves of cash. The bank, it had been decided, would be divided between its investors in proportion to the value of property held by each at the conclusion of the game, less a modest percentage to be donated to the Bobbies' Charity Fund in return for the officers' cooperation in overseeing the contest.

Holmes' silver tophat was resting on his own Pennsylvania Avenue safely between his opponent's properties of North Carolina Avenue and the Short Line. As the constable rolled the dice, I fervently hoped Holmes would pass Go without encountering either the Luxury Tax or the rent on the Boardwalk.

The dice settled. A three! Our machine promptly responded to this information by insisting on nothing less than the immediate purchase of Park Place, which fate had so happily placed in its hands...or tentacles...or hoses...or whatever.

The deed was done, while moriarty turned first pale white then a deep crimson - and finally reported the transaction to his machine by spinning a large valve with such force that I felt it surely must fly off the attached pipe. As he consulted his gauges, his face reached a shade that was positively alarming to a medical man such as myself. Finally he turned slowly to Holmes and smiled through clenched teeth, "Would you like to trade?"

"What is your offer?" asked the detective cooly. But I saw the cords in his neck tighten as he fought to keep from smiling.

The man to whom Holmes refered as "the most dangerous criminal in London" turned once more and opened a valve. Holmes' whole body was now as tight as the strings on his Stradivarius the day he tried to tune it himself. But all eyes were on Moriarty.

Suddenly a rolling boom reached our ears from the direction of Pierce Avenue and all eyes, with the exception of Holmes', turned that way.

I followed his gaze and saw him relax as all the gauges on the Professor's board slammed against their stops with a tinkling of broken glass barely audible above the roar from the west. He then turned his head westward and up to watch a rather large slate roof, some distance away, describe a lazy parabola through the autumn sky.

By the time the roof had dropped out of view, the Professor and his gang were legging it down the avenue at a considerable pace.

Holmes laughed as he got out his pipe, "A good show, eh what?"

I stood speechless, my bowler in my hand, mentally putting together the pieces of this remarkable stroke of luck.

"Not luck, my dear Watson," he answered my unvoiced thought as he knocked the dottle from his pipe into my hat. "Well, not entirely. You see, I knew I could not win a fair contest and Professor Moriarty also realized it. You will recall how quickly he agreed to our safeguards - witness the presence of our constabulary to referee. Indeed, I must credit him with playing a more honest game than I."

I watched as he strolled over tho the lampost nearest the ruined analogue console and detached an inconspicuous hose from the fitting where the gas mantle should have been.

"Do you mean to tell me," I blurted, "that all morning the Professor's computer has been filling with explosive gas?"

"I blush to admit it Watson, but since I had no plan when we arrived this morning other than to play the best possible game, when I saw my chance, I jumped at it.

"I had not anticipated it, but when I saw that the professor's workmen had conveniently used the lamposts for supports, the strategem of introducing gas into his system immediately occured to me. Beyond my wildest hopes, the workmen left their machinery unattended for a short period of time, giving me precisely the opportunity I desired.

"You may recall that I diverted your attention briefly this morning while I stood near the Professor's console. It was all the time I needed to attach a hose and crack open a gas valve. It was then only a matter of waiting for the air and gas reach the proportion conducive to an explosion and hoping that a spark or friction within the machine would set it off. The outcome you know.

"I perceive by your expression that you disapprove of my little sabotage. Ah well, I am not proud of it myself, for it was quite unsportsmanlike. But I must console myself with the fact that it will be some little time before Professor Moriarty will be able to use his computer to further his nefarious career. So, perhaps, the great city of London will be the winner of our little adventure.

"But come Watson. The day is still young and these sterling representatives of the British police will clear the playing field and return our money. If you will help me carry this typewriter back to Baker Street, I might be persuaded to create a set of instructions for TESLAVAC that could conceivably help our luck at the racetrack. Perhaps I may yet convince you of the practical value of the computer."

"Yes," I said, watching him smile between the pound sterling signs suddenly floating before my eyes, "Perhaps you may."