"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)
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 it 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. Our article on the subject, "How the Future
Shaped the Past: The Case of the Cashless Society" was recently accepted for
publication by Enterprise and Society and should be appearing in the final issue
of 2013 or the first of 2014.
Another CACM column, "Five Lessons from Really Good History" showcasing
Computer History Museum Prize and
its first four winners. The idea was to introduce outstanding scholarship on the
history of computing to a broader audience of technical people.
(Online at ACM)
ACM SIGMOD has published online a short article I wrote, "Fifty Years of
Databases" based on my earlier writing on Charles W. Bachman and the first
data base management systems, to celebrate the half century anniversary of the
Integrated Data Store. I have some reservations about calling this a data base
management system, but it certainly fits the title better than any other system
of the early-1960s and introduced many key ideas.
(Online at ACM) (Jan-5-2013)
Communications of the ACM published my second "Historical Reflections"
column, which should now be appearing every few months. In
"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). (31-Aug-2012).
I have now returned from six weeks at the University of Western Ontario as
the Jean Tague Sutcliffe Visiting Scholar in the
Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
The visit involved teaching a compressed doctoral course,
Histories of the Information Age, which
through an odd series of events evolved into more of an informal reading group.
Change: The Appropriation of Computer Technology at Grupo ICA in Mexico
(1965-1971)" Together with Bernardo
Bátiz-Lazo I've published an account of early
computer use in the Mexican civil engineering giant ICA. We tried to get at
some interesting connections between corporate structure, national political
systems, business models, emerging occupational identities, and computing
practice. The paper is now
available in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
(online IEEE CS)
(online locally). (11-Jul-2012)
Further to the item below, the
ACM profile of
Niklaus Wirth is now posted. (10-Jun-2012).
I've contributed several short profiles to the ACM
Turing Award Winners website, which ACM
has been greatly expanding, under the editorship of Mike Williams, in preparation for a celebration held in connection
with the Turing centenary. My articles on
William Kahan have been published, while a promised third piece on Nicklaus
Wirth is being delivered shamefully late but should be following soon.
"Did V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai Invent Email? A Computer Historian
Responds" My contribution to the recent mini-flurry of media
attention given to what Gizmodo memorably called "The Crazy Story of the Man Who
Pretended to Invent Email" (Gizmodo story
here). My own article is a little more measured, focused on the claims
themselves and outlining enough of the actual history of email, some of which
had not been properly researched before, to establish their lack of merit. It
was commissioned by the Washington Post, as part of a series cancelled for
reasons that remain largely mysterious.
So instead read it on the SIGCIS
website. (At least my initial message on the topic did reach a broader
audience, after it was picked up by
"The IBM PC: From Beige Box to Industry Standard,"
Communications of the ACM 55:1 (Jan 2012):35-37. This contribution
for the "Historical Reflections" column gives a concise and jargon free
summary of my thoughts on the evolution of the IBM PC as a kind of platform
and standard unique in the history of computing, and perhaps in the history
of technology more broadly. I've presented work on this topic previously,
but not yet published a longer version.
(online at ACM)
(online locally) (19-Jan-2011)
Bachman: Data Base Software Pioneer," IEEE Annals of
the History of Computing 33:4 (October-December 2011):70-80.
A biography of Charles W. Bachman, inventor of the data base management
system, had originally been planned for the 2009 special issue of IEEE
Annals on early data base systems. Space constraints prevented this, but the
biography has now been completed and published.
(online IEEE CS) (5-Nov-2011)
Harvard University Press has
published Histories of Computing, a collection of key papers
on the historiography of computing, software, and computer science by the
late Princeton professor Michael Mahoney.
As editor I had responsibility for selecting Mahoney's most important
papers, grouping them together, and making edits to minimize duplication
between papers while preserving the full range of his insights. My most
important contribution, however, was writing the historiographic
introduction "Unexpected Connections, Powerful
Precedents, and Big Questions: The Work of Michael S. Mahoney on the History
of Computing." At the request of HUP I've now taken down a preprint of
this chapter, but the book is available
for purchased at Amazon or to read in
a growing number of libraries. (5-Aug-2011)
Here's a late draft of my chapter
"Technology's Other Storytellers: Science Fiction as History of Technology"
to appear in a forthcoming volume on science fiction and computers (Science
Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains ed. David L. Ferro and
Eric G. Swedin). It's 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 have 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.
(Draft online here).
(14-Dec-2009) Update: the book is now available for
purchase at Amazon. (28-Jul-2011)
R. Rice: Mathematical Software Pioneer," IEEE Annals of the History of
Computing 32:4 (October-December 2010), 72-80. This completes
a "trilogy" based on oral history interviews and other research on
mathematical software I conducted for the Society for Industrial and Applied
Mathematics back in 2003-5 under a Department of Energy grant. The other
subjects were Cleve Moler and
(online at IEEE CS)
(online at Project Muse)
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" has been precirculated for discussed at the September meeting of project participants
in Leiden and is intended for inclusion in the project's edited volume.
(Read the latest version
online here). A longer and earlier version, "Crisis What Crisis?
Reconsidering the Software Crisis of the 1960s and the Origins of Software
Engineering" was presented at the Inventing Europe meeting in Sofia in June.
The earlier version lacks some important findings about Algol, and is
generally less polished and reliable, but does include additional material
on the historiography of the software crisis and the origins of the "crisis"
and spread of the crisis removed from "Dijkstra's Crisis" for space reasons
(earlier version online
Best of the Older Stuff
A half hour interview I did with the local
NPR station is available online for your
listening pleasure. "The Evolution of Computers," UWM Today, May 8
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 management information. The full
text is accessible from my writing page.
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. This is also accessible
from my writing page.
“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
version online. (12-May-2010)