"The Tears of Donald Knuth: Has the History of Computing Taken a Tragic
Turn?" Communications of the ACM 58:1 (Jan 2015):40-44. Beloved computer
scientist Donald Knuth issued an appeal: "Let's not dumb down the history of
computer science." I responded, arguing that the responsibility to write and
support the kind of technical, "internalist" history favored by Knuth lay with
computer scientists themselves. It went viral, and to date has been downloaded
more than 105,000 times from the ACM Digital Library.
(Online at ACM) (Feb 20,
"Histories of The Internet: Introducing the Special Issue of Information &
Culture" (with Andrew L. Russell and William H. Dutton). Forthcoming in
Information & Culture 50:2 (May-June 2015). The introduction to a
forthcoming special issue we edited. It explores the gap between modern sense of
the Internet as something very broad, including large parts of our daily human
experience, and the rather narrow framing of most current work on Internet
history. (Online preprint).
"Evgeny Morozov, Author of the Quixote" & "Some
notes on my Morozov/Menard address," satirical posts to the SIGCIS.org
"Members" listserv on Oct 12 & 13, 2014. What Evgeny Morozov did with the
work of Eden Medina shows that he is even more brilliant than he says he is.
Also more modest. Borges tells us why.
(Online locally) (Online at SIGCIS:
"We Have Never Been Digital," Communications of
the ACM 57:9 (Sept 2014):24-28. This "Historical Reflections" column
explores the history of the idea of the digital and its connection to the idea
of revolutionary social change, arguing that humanities scholars should apply
their critical tools to the analysis of computing rather than rushing to embrace
"digital humanities" as a transformative new approach.
(Online at ACM) (Online
"Los Alamos Bets on ENIAC: Nuclear Monte Carlo
Simulations, 1947-48" (with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope), IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
36:3 (Jul-Sep 2014):42-63. Part three of the trilogy looks at the ENIAC
program developed to simulate nuclear fission, the first large-scale application
of the Monte Carlo method. This was also the first modern computer code ever
run, and the surviving documentation gives a rich picture of its development by
a team including John and Klara von Neumann and Nick Metropolis.
(online IEEE CS) (online locally).
"Engineering 'The Miracle of the ENIAC':
Implementing the Modern Code Paradigm" (with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope),
Annals of the History of Computing 36:2 (April-June 2014):41-59.
The second in our ENIAC trilogy looks at the conversion of ENIAC to the modern
control method in 1948, comparing its capabilities with those of other computers
of the late 1940s. While the fact of the conversion is well known its details,
including such basic things as who was responsible and whether it took place in
April or September, have previously been rather fuzzy.
"Reconsidering the Stored Program Concept"
(with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope), IEEE Annals of the History
of Computing 36:1(January-March 2014):4-17. The first in a trilogy of
articles from a major research project I've been leading into the history of
ENIAC and its modification in 1947-8 to become the first computer able to
execute programs written in the modern form described in von Neumann's seminal
"First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC." That new approach is often called the
"stored program concept" and this paper is less about ENIAC itself and more
about probing the history of that idea and its limitations as a description of
what was novel about the new direction computers took in the second half of the
(online IEEE CS)
Future Shaped the Past: The Case of the Cashless Society," (with Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo
& David Stearns)
Enterprise & Society 15:1 (March 2014):103-131. The "cashless society" idea is interesting for several reasons. First, it has
managed to retain an allure as futuristic and new despite being fifty years old.
Second, it's a vision of the future defined in terms of what is absent rather
than what is present. This is probably a source of its longevity. Third, the
imagined future itself has had considerable power to shape the direction of
technological and institutional change. I've been exploring this idea for a while with
Bernardo Batiz-Lazo and Dave Stearns, including extracts from our work adapted
Bloomberg blog post and a short article in a
business school publication. Now our article has appeared in one of the
leading business history journals.
(online Project Muse) (online
"Actually, Turing Did Not Invent the
Computer," Communications of the ACM 57:1 (Jan 2014):36-41. Another
outgrowth of my investigation of ENIAC in the context of computing practice
during the mid-1940s. This article challenged some overheated claims made
recently for the importance of Turing's theoretical work of the 1930s to the
development of what are often called "stored program" computers a decade later.
This gave an opportunity to sketch Turing's actual contributions to computing,
to explore the interplay between the origins of computer science and computer
technology, and to point readers towards some excellent literature on the early
history of electronic computing.
(Online at ACM)
"Software and Souls; Programs and Packages," Communications of the
ACM 56:9 (Sept 2013):31-34. My fourth "historical reflection" dealt with
the special character of software and the challenges it poses both to curators
and archivists and to historians. My suggestion is to embrace the special
character of software as a "package," which is both historically responsible and
conceptually broad enough to encompass the packaging together of various kinds
of code, practices, or tacit knowledge into a transportable assemblage.
(Online at ACM) (Online locally)
The Computability in Europe conference this year had the theme
"The Nature of Computation" and
featured a small stream special sessions on the History of Computation,
organized by Gerard Alberts and Liesbeth De Mol. This included my paper
"'Stored Program Concept' Considered Harmful: History and Historiography."
The paper summarizes some recent work on the idea of the stored program
computer, attempting to connect with the audience of theoretical computer
scientists by adding some explicit discussion of the relationship of this to
Alan Turing. A written version is included in the corresponding book:
The Nature of Computation: Logic, Algorithms, Applications ed. Paola
Vasco Brattka & Benedikt Löwe, 2013. That's number 79212 in Springer's ever
expanding LNCS series.
(Slides online locally)
I gave the keynote address at the 2013 Association of Business Historians
meeting, "Taking Care of Business History: Challenges and Opportunities for
the 21st Century." This matched the conference theme of
Business History in the 21st Century, which struck me as nicely historical
given that we are already more than a decade into said century and have begun to
pick up some practical experience of its character. ABH is the main group for
business historians in the UK, and its meetings attract a significant contingent
of overseas scholars. The occasion gave me a chance to think about the special
challenges of carrying out historical work in the context of professional
schools or within interdisciplinary settings. Also I tried to make it funny.
(Text locally). (July-20-2013)
SIAM News, sent to all members of the Society for Industrial and Applied
Mathematics, has published my review of Turing's Cathedral, George
Dyson's unconventional, evocative, and sometimes exasperating history of the
computer project John von Neumann led at the Institute for Advanced Studies.
(online at SIAM) (April-5-2013)
Best of the Older Stuff
One of my papers, “Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer,
1950-1968” Business History Review 75
(Spring 2001): 15-61 is the first real look at the role of the "systems
men" -- experts in administrative techniques -- as staff managerial
specialists within the American corporations of the 1950s and 1960s. It
examines the emergence of the modern concepts of information and information
systems as political tools within this history of corporate management,
focusing particularly on the designation of the computer as a tool for
(full text locally)
My paper "The Chromium-Plated Tabulator: Institutionalizing an
Electronic Revolution, 1954-1958", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 23
(October-December 2001): 75-104 tells the story of the first four years of
administrative computing in the USA. It is the first in-depth, overall study
of how early administrative computers were brought and sold, what they were
used for, and the new kinds of jobs that emerged around them. It reveals the
extent to which the use of computers was shaped by the earlier technologies
of punched card machines, and draws attention to the importance of the data
processing department as a new corporate institution.
(full text locally)
“Software in the 1960s as Concept, Service, and
of the History of Computing 24:1 (January-March 2002). (Click
here for the
issue contents page). Chosen as the leading article for a special issue on the
early history of packaged application software, this article surveys the
origins and early ambiguities of the term "software", the origins of packaged
application programs and their relationship to the concerns of data processing
managers. Here it is as published
"Remembering the Office of the Future: Word Processing
and Office Automation before the Personal Computer," IEEE Annals
of the History of Computing 28:4 (October-December 2006):6-31. This
article explores the technical, business, and social history of word
processing during the 1960s and 1970s. It is part of a special issue on the
history of word processing, representing the first sustained historical
examination of this important technology. Read it online.
I wrote two chapters for the 2008 MIT Press book
"The Internet and American Business" edited by William Aspray and Paul
Ceruzzi. The first one, "Protocols for Profit: Web and
Email Technologies as Product and Infrastructure" tells the business and
technological history of development of Internet web browsing and
email/messaging systems. I focus particularly on the ways in which the
design features built into pre-commercial Internet technologies during the
1980s influenced directions taken by the commercial Internet of the 1990s.
Read a preprint version here.
The second, "The Web's Missing Links: The Search Engine & Portal
Industry" does a similar job for the development of the web navigation
industry. Read a preprint
"How Data Got Its Base: Information
Storage Software in the 1950s and 1960s" builds on my earlier paper on the topic to
expand coverage of collaborative projects in the area particularly the
generalized file maintenance and reporting systems of the 1950s.
"The History of Information Technology," Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 45
(2011): 431-487. Since 1966 the ARIST has been one of the
premier publication venues in information science, home to long review
essays exploring the literature and key ideas in broad areas of research. I
got there just in time, as the 2011 volume is to be the last and there are
not many other outlets that could provide the luxury of more than 26,000
words to survey the whole literature. Read a
"Technology's Other Storytellers: Science Fiction as History of Technology"
appeared in a rather volume on science fiction and computers (Science
Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains ed. David L. Ferro and
Eric G. Swedin, McFarland 2011). The book appeared from a rather obscure
an extensive and interesting list on science fiction studies and thus
remains almost entirely unknown. That was not unexpected -- the chapter was a
labor of love, dealing with some issues I've thought about a lot over the
past few decades (and taught a course about)
but never tried to write about before. These is some relevance to
history of computing, but it's primarily aimed at persuading historians of
technology to take science fiction more seriously.
(Preprint online here).
In the scholarly literature on the history of
software, no idea looms larger than the "software crisis" of the late 1960s
and no event has been more discussed than the NATO Conference on Software
Engineering held in 1968. Yet I've always been surprised by how little they
feature in the primary literature for most computing communities in the
1960s and 1970s. My involvement in the Software for Europe Project has
stimulated research to investigate this, leading to some exciting
discoveries regarding the actual content of the 1968 conference and its
relationship to the Algol 68 story being studied by other project
participants. My most recent draft on this topic, "Dijkstra's Crisis: The
End of Algol and the Beginning of Software Engineering:1968-1972"
was precirculated for discussed at the September meeting of project participants
in Leiden and was intended for inclusion in the project's edited volume,
which met a sad fate. The chapter is too long for a conventional journal
article, so my current plan is to save the material for a future book on the
history of software. (Read the latest version
In one of my columns for Communications of the
"Seven Lessons from Bad History: Journalists,
Historians, and the Invention of Email" I tried to step back from the twists
and turns of the "Inventor of Email" affair to see what it tells us about the
place of high technology history in the Internet age.
Read it here. (For those of you who
are interested in the twists and turns, I have
updated my earlier analysis of the
merit of Shiva Ayyadurai's case to encompass his latest claims and his 2013