Classic Traveller: About those Ship’s Computers…

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For some reason many people think the displacement tonnage devoted to computers on starships reflects the massive computers of the 1970s. I have never understood this. Why would computers in the “Far Future” look like computers from the 1970s? Even in 1977 when I first bought Classic Traveller I never assumed the space required for computers was taken up with one large computer with spinning tape reels.

The displacement tonnage of the computer isn’t for “the computer” alone. It is the space devoted on the ship to the computer system.

Starships in Traveller travel parsecs away from facilities that can handle repairs of starships. They travel to worlds (often) where the technology level is far below the needs that might be required to repair their computer. Starships in Traveller can be attacked by other ships when entering into a new system. These attacks can damage any element of the ship — including the computer system. The computer system in Traveller starships handle many functions, but one of the most important is handling the Generate program or running the Navigation programs that allow the ship to track and navigate from star system to star system and arrive close enough in a system to the system starport that the ship can dock before running out of life support but not so close that the ship is destroyed by a world’s gravity well when coming out of jump space. The storage of the programs of data for these programs alone must be monstrous. If the computer system is damaged and there is no facility to repair it, there is no way to leave a system. A crew and passengers might not be going home for a long while… if at all. (Which is awesome for Traveller play, by the way! But not something most folks traveling on a starship would want to encourage.)

The volume dedicated to the computer, as I see it, constitutes redundancies of multiple computer systems, space for accessing those systems, armor around the computer systems to prevent damage from attacks, cushioning and packing to protect the system on hard landings.

I understand there are people who would, apparently, head off light years from the closest repair facilities into the coldness of space knowing they might take missile or laser fire damage or have a bad landing on a planet or end up in a system without any computer technology at all… and yet still want to attempt such travel with nothing but a laptop sitting on their ship’s console to get them there and back.

I am not one of those people. And I would never get on such a person’s person’s ship.

[As a side note: The term “Jump Tapes” never appears in the rules. The item is called a Jump Cassette, and whether this cassette holds a tape, crystals, gears, a magnetic pulse, or any other method of interacting with the ship’s computer is never defined…]

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10 thoughts on “Classic Traveller: About those Ship’s Computers…

  1. I also tend to (as do many long-time Traveller Grognards) see “computer space” as including the basic avionics, sensors, etc.

    D.

  2. Yep. Even early JTAS articles described the tonnage as more of a “computer room” than the actual machine itself. I see it as an overall displacement requirement to “wire a ship for computers”. This includes terminals in all the staterooms, cameras and electronic lock panels everywhere (so the Intrusion program can operate), etc.

    In fact, the displacement cost may not even be all in one place, but like streamlining, is an “overhead”. Though I know that’s not how many of the early floor plans treated the subject.

    This also helps makes sense of the minimum computer requirements for larger hulls that appear in Book 5.

  3. I like the idea of it being a “computer room” + cabling and terminals.

    However, is it also possible that micro electronics don’t much like jumping? So you end up with very… chunky computer compared to what you would need on the ground?

    • The thing is, the Basic Rules of Classic Traveller (which consist of Books 1-3 and nothing more, and are the subject of this blog) offer almost NO details about how any of the technology works.

      I believe this is by design. The specifics of the technology would not affect the rules, and the rules were what Miller knew the books had to be about. Thus, it was up to any Referee to make decisions about the specific nature of jump technology, computers, and more.

      Your idea about micro-electronics not liking jumping are a perfect example of the Referee “filling in the details” on the technology for a Referee’s specific technology. It makes sense, answers questions, and because it is specific can lead to other issues, ideas, and adventures in that setting.

  4. I have always viewed the computer as indeed taking up this much space. Consider Traveller postulates, I feel, a bit of a plateau (a rather long one actually) for Moore’s Law as it applies to computing. I made a clumsy statement about the slow-burn of the Traveller universe’s sloooooooooow march towards a singularity on a Traveller blog recently, but I digress…

    So you have a starship computer that has to work out calculations which deal with a lot of chaos, quantum considerations and the like – SF handwavium for “this computer needs to be really powerful”. That’s to be reconciled with a game world that doesn’t let AI really pop up until TL 15 – 16 or so (that plateau mentioned before). So I envision a Traveller ship’s computer being immensely powerful (by our standards) given the kind of work it has to do. I’m guessing if you could look at the quantum computers being run by the few governments that have them now a days you’d find they take up rooms. Consider, here’s a current quantum computer, moderately more powerful than a desktop:

    http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/155380-quantum-computer-wins-first-ever-speed-test-against-a-conventional-intel-pc

    Note the picture there… this thing is “Yoooge!” It’s not to hard to envision Starship computers needing to be as powerful as they are, built on this tech, being the size they are.

    Unrelated: You can get that laptop for *spaceships* BTW – a Robot Brain, DGP did a really good article about that back in the day. It can’t get you into jump-space but it can run basic systems on a STL ship.

  5. Look at the Aegis Weapon System of today. The MultiMission Signal Processor and other computers take a room. Many want to think this can be reduced to a tablet but it doesn’t work that way. Even the latest upgrades to the F-15 mission computer still have a hefty box that weighs in at over 70 lbs!
    I have never seen computers in Traveller as a single box but a whole network of systems and inputs and consoles.

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