Working Smarter

In 1947 two Harvard undergraduates, William Burkhart and Theodore Kalin, built a primitive machine for doing propositional logic. They had been taking a course in symbolic logic with Willard Van Orman Quine and were tired of solving problems with pencil and paper, so they set about making a machine that would do their homework automatically.

The result of their $150 investment was a small machine that could handle problems involving up to 12 terms in the propositional calculus. The “Kalin-Burkhart machine” marks a milestone in the development of logic machines, but working in the machine’s language is so laborious that using a pencil is faster.

“It is interesting to note that when certain types of paradoxes are fed to the Kalin-Burkhart machine it goes into an oscillating phase, switching rapidly back and forth from true to false,” noted Martin Gardner in Logic Machines and Diagrams (1958). “In a letter to Burkhart in 1947 Kalin described one such example and concluded, ‘This may be a version of Russell’s paradox. Anyway, it makes a hell of a racket.'”