This review was published in Technology and Culture 44.4 (2003) 841-842.
From 0 to 1: An Authoritative History of Modern Computing. Edited by Atsushi Akera and Frederik Nebeker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xi+228. $39.95.
This slim volume comprises fifteen short chapters and four appendices, each addressing a specific topic in the history of computing. Authors include most of the leading scholars in the field; each has contributed a single article, usually a summary of his or her primary area of interest. Most are condensations of previously published material. Eight chapters are concerned almost exclusively with events before 1950, only three with developments since 1970.
From 0 to 1 is a valuable resource for someone with a basic grounding in the subject, and many chapters are suitable for assignment to undergraduates. Those most widely used are likely to be the chapters that go beyond a simple recounting of material already familiar from the standard accounts. Martin Campbell-Kelly's discussion of "Computers in the Marketplace" stands out here in adopting a historiographic approach to the business history of the computer industry. Michael Mahoney's address to the history of systems software takes a strong position vis-à-vis the development of the "self programming machine." Luanne Johnson provides a glimpse of the origins of the software industry, a topic attracting increasing attention. The appendices, including guides to the secondary literature and an overview of archival and oral history resources, will be helpful to readers looking to move beyond these texts.
This is not, however, the "authoritative history" promised by the publisher. While interesting and well written, the articles are far too short to [End Page 841] aspire to authoritative coverage. The chapter on "The Modern Computer Business," for example, includes just one page on events after 1951. Most authors assume a certain amount of background knowledge. Hence, the reader who does not already know what an Altair is will not find the answer here despite several references to this machine. Those looking for an introduction to the history of computing, or a primary course textbook, would thus be better served by one of the standard surveys, chief among which are Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Machine (1996), and Paul E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing (1998). In From 0 to 1, some topics are covered by several authors, while many others are not explored at all. Among topics missing here (but mostly present in standard accounts) are the origins of personal computer hardware, the structure and development of the mainframe computer industry since 1950, the application of computers to business and science, office automation and word processing, the development of computer science and computer architecture, and home computing. The index includes no entries for e-mail, UNIX, or the minicomputer.
Very well illustrated, the book includes several chapters "designed to provide a different point of entry into the history of computing through photographs" (p. 7), making it a good choice for classroom use. Unfortunately, several typos have crept in, and, despite the generally rigorous nature of the research, at least one significant error. (On page 199, Robert W. Seidel suggests that IBM's unbundling of hardware and software took place in the early 1980s rather than in 1969, as Luanne Johnson makes clear on page 101.)
Limitations of space aside, the strengths and weaknesses of the book are simply those of the field as a whole. It deals well with the technological and institutional factors shaping the invention and commercialization of the computer. Considered as a subfield of the history of technology, however, the history of computing remains immature and ill defined. This volume reflects a range of concerns now expanding beyond the history and development of machines themselves to include business history and software, and beyond the study of the computer as a device for calculation and computation to include its use in business administration and communication. By including separate chapters on earlier calculating machines and office technologies, it situates the computer within two different technological traditions. Attention to usage, however, introduces enormous historiographic complexity, because computer technology has replaced earlier technologies in so many different social contexts, from military command-and-control systems to personal audio players. Valuable as it is, then, this volume also shows how much important work remains to be done.
Dr. Haigh recently received his Ph.D. in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the use of information technology in the twentieth-century American corporation, and his work has appeared in Business History Review and IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.