What did the Duke of Wellington do for Ham Radio?

The great Irish soldier Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was famous for his boots. He wore magnificent long shiny leather boots. His legacy lives on in the form of “Wellington Boots” which are rather inelegant rubber boots worn by gardeners. I am sure he would not be amused but at least he immortalized the word “boot”. He might even have been impressed by how we use the word today.

Ever wondered why we “boot” a computer? My 15-year-old steam-powered Toshiba laptop got booted recently – as in booted out of the shack. It served me well for many long years but at the end, when I powered it up, it took several minutes to “boot” and be ready for action.

When I was first introduced to computing, at college back in my former home and native land over the hills and far away, we were taught that a computer is “a very fast idiot”. The college’s mainframe was an Elliot 800 programmed by a punched paper tape. By the time I graduated (after having been given a life-long love of Physics by being taught all the different ways to build an atomic bomb) the college had installed a state-of-the-art ICL mainframe that was programmed using the more robust punched cards. One card per instruction! A simple program involved a stack of one-time-use cards.

By today’s standards both those mainframes were indeed idiots and not very fast either. All student programs were run overnight by a computer operator. If we were lucky, it took only 24 hours to learn we had missed an essential punctuation mark from one of the instruction cards and the compiler had rejected our Algol or Fortran program.

Today’s personal computers are thousands of times faster than those 1970s era mainframes but they are still essentially very fast idiots. A PC that is powered down has no computing power at all. When it is first turned on it is controlled by its Basic Input/Output System (BIOS). BIOS tells the idiot what it is, where to find its resources and what to do next.

The term “boot” refers to the process of “lifting one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps” and that is essentially how we turn an idiot into a powerful computing engine capable of videoconferencing, logging, Winlink and controlling our shack radios. If only the same process could be applied to politicians who an unkind person having a bad day might look upon as very slow idiots. In addition to being a brilliant soldier, Lord Wellington was also a politician who served as British prime minister. Oh well, thanks anyway Arthur.

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