Have you ever wondered why junk email is called “spam?”  This bit of nonsense from Monty Python’s Flying Circus is said to be the basis for the use of the term spamming to describe the sending of unsolicited junk email:

“Well there’s egg and bacon; egg, sausage and bacon; egg and spam; bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg and spam; spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam; or lobster thermidor aux crevettes with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate’, brandy and a fried egg on top of spam.”

Dr. John’s Machine

Back in the early days of computers, the programming was done by “hard-wiring”the computer to perform a certain sequence of instructions.  People spent hours determining the wiring scheme followed by more hours actually getting the wiring right…

Fortunately, a fellow named Dr. John Von Neumann came up with a better idea. He developed the concept of actually storing the program in the computer’s memory rather than spending all the time hard-wiring the damn thing.  Hence, the basis for today’s computer technology was born. As you should suspect by now, most computers (including your smartphones and tablets) are “Von Neumann” machines.  They run “stored programs” containing “machine language instructions” under control of something inside your device called a “program counter” that figures out what instruction to do next.

How does this work?  Well, the computer’s central processing unit (CPU) typically has an internal “clock” that “ticks” at some speed such as 2 Gigahertz per second.  During each clock tick or “cycle,” specific things happen inside the computer.  For example, during one clock cycle, an instruction may be fetched from memory and decoded.  During the next clock cycle, the instruction starts execution; during the next clock cycle, a piece of data may be retrieved from memory and added to another piece of data, and so on and so on.

Of course today’s computers are much more sophisticated than those of Von Neumann’s era… and a lot smaller and faster.  The machines Von Neumann worked with filled floors in buildings and took almost forever to do what your hand-held smartphones and tablets do in microseconds.  But, as sophisticated as today’s devices are, they still do what Dr. Von Neumann told them to do years ago.

The Point


thepoint1126The Ohio River originates at the “Forks of the Ohio,” the historical name for the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers at Pittsburgh, PA.  The image above depicts this location, which is known as the “Point,” as it appeared around 1920, when the factories and mills were still operating.  The image on the left is a contemporary view of the Point, sans the heavy industry of yesteryear.

The Locks

lock4The Pittsburgh District of the US Army Corps of Engineers operates 23 locks and dams on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.  Lock #4 on the Monongahela River is about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh near Charleroi, PA.

In addition to Charleroi, there is another town a bit south of Lock #4 named Monessen.  Charleroi was home to a glass factory and takes its name from Charleroi, Belgium, which was a major producer of glass products…and a lot of the original glassworkers were indeed Belgian immigrants.  Monessen had steel mills and a cast iron foundry.  It is named after the Monongahela (i.e., Mon) River and Essen, Germany, which was at the time a major steel production center.  One of the major reasons for locating the factories along the rivers was the need for a low-cost, dependable way to transport the primary energy source needed to run the factories, which was coal.  Southwestern Pennsylvania and neighboring West Virginia had large deposits of soft, or bituminous, coal, much of which was transported from the coal mines to the factories by river barge.  Hence the need for the locks and dams to make sure the river maintained a minimum depth of nine feet, which was needed to make it navigable for steamboats pushing barges filled with coal.


If you’ve bothered to read this far, here’s the reason this piece of trivia exists.  My hometown was Monessen and my wife’s hometown was Charleroi.  Back in the day, our fathers, uncles, other relatives, and the majority of their contemporaries worked in the steel mills, foundries, glass factories, and coal mines in or near the small towns dotting the riverbanks of the “Mighty Mon.”