The History of Computing in The History of Technology

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					               The History of Computing in the History of Technology

                                      Michael S. Mahoney
                                 Program in History of Science
                               Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

                          (Annals of the History of Computing 10(1988), 113-125)



       After surveying the current state of the literature in the history of computing, this
       paper discusses some of the major issues addressed by recent work in the history of
       technology. It suggests aspects of the development of computing which are pertinent
       to those issues and hence for which that recent work could provide models of
       historical analysis. As a new scientific technology with unique features, computing
       in turn can provide new perspectives on the history of technology.


Introduction                                             record-keeping by a new industry of data
                                                         processing. As a primary vehicle of
Since World War II 'information' has emerged             communication over bo th space and t ime, it
as a fundamental scientific and technological            has come to form the core of modern
concept applied to phenomena ranging from                information technolo gy.           What the
black holes to DNA, from the organization of             English-speaking world refers to as "computer
cells to the processes of human thought, and             science" is known to the rest of western
from the management of corporations to t he              Europe as informatique (or Informatik or
allocation of global resources. In addition to           informatica). Much of the concern over
reshaping established disciplines, it has                information as a commodity and as a natural
stimulated the formation of a panoply of new             resource derives from the computer and from
subjects and areas of inquiry concerned with             computer-based communications technolo gy. 1
its structure and its role in nature and society         Hence, the history of the computer and of
(Machlup and Mansfeld 1983). Theories based              computing is central to that of information
on the concept of 'information' have so                  science and technology, providing a thread by
permeated modern culture that it now is                  which to maintain bearing while exploring the
widely taken to characterize our times. We               ever-growing maze of disciplines and
live in an 'information society', an 'age of             subdisciplines that claim information as their
information'. Indeed, we look to models of               subject.
information processing to explain our own                          Despite the pervasive presence of
patterns of thought.                                     computing in modern science and technology,
          The computer has played the central            not to mention modern society itself, the
ro le in that tr ansfo rmat ion, both                    history of computing has yet to establish a
accommodating and encouraging ever broader               significant presence in the history of science
views of 'information' and of how it can be
transformed and communicated over time and
space. Since the 1950s the computer has                  1
                                                          To characterize the unprecedented capabilities of
replaced traditional methods of accounting and           computers linked to telecommunications, Nora and
                                                         Minc (1978) coined the term télématique.
Mahoney                          History of Computing in t he History of Technology                        page 2

and technology. Meetings of the History of                  either through regular surveys of the state and
Science Society and the Society for the                     development of various fields (e.g. Rosen
History of Technology in recent years have                  1967, Sammet 1969)3 or compilations of
included very few            sessions devoted               seminal papers (Randell 1982; Yourdon 1979,
specifically to history of computing, and few               1982; AT&T 1987),4                  or through
of the thematic sessions have included                      reminiscences and retrospectives, either
contributions from the perspective of                       written directly or transcribed from their
computing. There is clearly a balance to be                 contributions to conferences and symposia.5
redressed here.                                             Biographies of men or machines --some
         The status of the history of comput ing            heroic, some polemical, some both-- are a
within the history of technology surely reflects            prominent genre, and one reads a lot about
on both parties, but the bulk of the task of                "pioneers". A few corporate histories have
redress lies with the former. A look at the                 appeared, most notably IBM's Early
literature shows that, by and large, histo rians            Computers (Bashe et al. 1986), but they too
of computing are addressing few of the                      are in-house productions.
questions that historians of technology are                           This literature represents for the most
now asking. It is worth looking at what those               part "insider" history, full of facts and firsts.
questions are and what form they might take                 While it is first-hand and expert, it is also
when addressed to computing. The question is                guided by the current state of knowledge and
how to bring the history of computing into line             bound by the professional culture. That is, its
with what should be its parent discipline.                  authors take as givens (often technical givens)
Doing so will follow a two-way street: t he                 what a more critical, outside viewer might see
history of co mputing should use models from                as choices. Reading their accounts makes it
the history of techno logy at t he same time that           difficult to see the alternatives, as the authors
we use the history of computing to test those               themselves lose touch with a time when they
models. In so me aspects, at least, comput ing              did not know what they now know. In the long
poses some of the major questions of the                    run, most of this literature will become primary
history of technology in special ways. Both                 sources, if not of the development of
fields have much to learn from the other.                   computing per se, then of its emerging culture.
                                                                       From the outset, the computer
Computing's Present History                                 attracted the attention of journalists, who by
                                                            the late '50s were beginning to recount its
 Where the current literature in the history of             history. The result is a sizable inventory of
computing is self-consciously historical, it
focuses in large part on hardware and on the                3
pre-history and early development of the                     Many of the articles in Computing Surveys, begun in
                                                            1969, include an historical review of the subject.
computer.2       Where it touches on later
developments or provides a wider view, it is                4
                                                             The 25th-anniversary issues of the leading journals
only incidentally historical. A major portion of            also contain useful collections of importan t articles.
the literature stems from the people involved,
                                                            5
                                                             Wexelblatt (1981), a record of the 1978 ACM
                                                            Conference on the History of Programming Lan guages,
                                                            is an excellent exampl e, as is a recent issue of the
2
 See Aspray (1984) for a recent, brief survey of the        Annals of the History of Computing on the Burroughs
state of the field.                                         B5000.
Mahoney                        History of Computing in t he History of Technology                     page 3

accounts having the virtues and vices of the              that has grown exponentially in size and
journalist's craft. They are vivid, they capture          variety, looking not so much like an uncharted
the spirit of the people and of the institutions          ocean as like a trackless jungle. We pace on
they portray, and they have an eye for the                the edge, pondering where to cut in.
telling anecdote. But their immediacy comes at
the price of perspective. Written by people                 The Questions           of the History of
more or less knowledgeable about the subject              Technology
and about t he history of technology, these
accounts tend t o focus on the unusual and the              The state of the literature in history of
spectacular, be it people or lines of research,           computing emerges perhaps more clearly by
and they often cede to the self-evaluation of             comparison (and by contrast) with what is
their subjects. Thus the microcomput er and               currently appearing in the history of
artificial intelligence have had the lion's share         technology in general and with the questions
of attention, as their advocates have roared a            that have occupied historians of technology
succession of millenia.                                   over the past decade or so. Those questions
           The journalistic accounts veer into            derive from a clust er of seminal articles by
another major portion of the literature on                George S. Daniels, Edwin T. Layton, Jr.,
computing, namely what may be called "social              Eugene S. Ferguson, Nathan Rosenberg, and
impact statements". Often difficult to                    Thomas P. Hughes, among others. How has
distinguish from futurist musing on the                   the relatio nship between science and
computer, the discussions of the effects of the           technology changed and developed over time
computer on society and its various activities            and place? How has engineering evolved,
tend on the whole to view computing apart                 both as an intellectual activity and as a social
from the history of technology rather than                role? Is technology the creator of demand or
from its perspective. Histo ry here serves the            a response to it? Put another way, does
purpose of social analysis, criticism, and                technology follow a society's momentum or
commentary. Hence much of it comes from                   redirect it by external impulse?6 How far does
popular accounts taken uncritically and                   economics go in explaining technological
episodically to support non-historical, often             innovation and development? How do new
polemical, theses. Some of this literature rests          technologies establish themselves in society,
on a frankly political agenda; whether its                and how does society adapt to them? To what
models and modes of analysis provide insight              extent and in what ways do societies engender
depends on whether one agrees with that                   new technologies? What are the patterns by
agenda.                                                   which technology is transferred from one
           Finally, there is a small body of              culture to another? What role do governments
professionally historical work, dealing for the           play in fostering and directing technological
most part with the origins of the computer, its
invention and early development (e.g. Stern
1981, Ceruzzi 1982, Williams 1986). It is                 6
                                                           George Daniels (1 970) put th e question as an
meant as no denigration of that work to note              assertion (p.6): "... the real effect of technical
that it stops at the point where computing                inn ovation [has been] to help American s do better
                                                          what they had already shown a marked inclination to
becomes a significant presence in science,
                                                          do." The seemin g "social lag" in ada pting t o new
technology, and society. There historians stand           techn ology, he argued, is more likely economic in
before the daunting complexity of a subject               natur e.
Mahoney                       History of Computing in t he History of Technology                  page 4

innovation and development? These are some               then or has seemed since. Daniel Nelson
of the "big questions", as George Daniels                (1975) and Stephen Meyer (1981) have
(1970) once put it. They can be broken down              entered the factory floor by another door to
into smaller, more manageable questions, but             study the effects of mass production on the
ultimately they are the questions for which              workers it organized.
historians of technology bear special                              Looking at technology in other
responsibility within the historical community.          contexts, Walter McDougall (1985) has
They are all of them questions which can shed            anatomized the means and motivation of
light on the development of computing while              gover nment support of research and
it in turn elucidates them.                              development since World War II, revealing
         A few examples from recent literature           structures and patterns that extend well
must suffice to suggest the approaches                   beyond the space program. Behind his study
historians of technology are taking to those             stands the ongoing history of NASA and of its
questions. Each suggests by implication what             individual projects. From another perspective,
might be done in the history of computing. A             David F. Noble (1984) has examined the
spate of studies on industrial research                  "command technology" that lay behind the
laboratories has explored the sources,                   development of numerically controlled tools.
purposes and strategies of organized                     At a more mundane level, Ruth Cowan (1983)
innovation, invention, and patenting in the late         has shown how "progress is our most
19th and early 20th centuries, bringing out the          important product" often translated into More
dynamics of technological improvement that               Work for Mother, while her own experiments
Rosenberg (1979) suggested was a major                   in early nineteenth-century domestic
source of growth in productivity. In Networks            technology have brought out the intimate
of Power Thomas P. Hughes (1983) has                     relationship between household work and
provided a model for pursuing another                    family relations.
suggestion by Rosenberg, namely the need to                        In the late 1970s Anthony F.C.
treat technologies as interactive constituents           Wallace (1978) and Eugene Ferguson (1979b)
of systems. Developments in one subsystem                recalled our attention to the non-verbal modes
may be responses to demands in others and                of thought that seem more characteristic of the
hence have their real pay-offs there. Or a               inventor and engineer than does the
breakthrough in one component of the system              language-based thinking o f the scientist.7
may unexpectedly create new opportunities in             Brooke Hindle's (1981) study of Morse's
the others, or even force a reorganization of            telegraph and Reese Jenkins's (1987) recent
the system itself.                                       work on the iconic patterns of Edison's
          In detailed examinations of one of the         thought provide examples of the insights
"really big questions" of the history of                 historians can derive from artifacts read as the
American technology, Merritt Roe Smith                   concrete expressions of visual and t actile
(1977) and David A. Hounshell (1984) have                cognition, recognizing that, as Henry Ford
traced the origins of the "American System"              once put it,
and its evolution into mass production and the
assembly line.        Both have entered the
workshops and factories to reveal the quite
uneven reception and progress of that system,            7
                                                         See in particular Wallace's "Thinking About
never so monolithic or pervasive as it seemed            Machinery" (Wallace 1978, pp.237ff.).
Mahoney                           History of Computing in t he History of Technology                        page 5

          There is an immense amount                         analytical engine and George Boole's algebra
         to be learned simply by                             of thought as if they were conceptually related
         tinkering with things. It is not                    by     something other than 20th-century
         possible to learn from books                        hindsight. Whatever John von Neumann's
         how everything is made --and                        precise role in designing the "von Neumann
         a real mechanic ought to know                       architecture" that defines the computer for the
         how nearly everything is made.                      period with which historians are properly
         Machines are to a mechanic                          concerned, it is really only in von Neumann's
         what books are to a writer. He                      collaboration with the ENIAC team that two
         gets ideas from them, and if he                     quite separate historical strands came together:
         has any brains he will apply                        the effort to achie ve high-speed,
         those ideas (Ford 1922, p.24).8                     high-precision, automatic calculation and the
                                                             effort to design a logic machine capable of
The renewed emphasis on the visual has                       significant reasoning.9
reinforced the natural ties between the                               The dual nature of the computer is
historian of technology and the museum, at the               reflected in its dual origins: hardware in the
same time t hat it has forged links between                  sequence of devices that stretches from the
history of technology and the study of material              Pascaline to the ENIAC, software in the series
culture.                                                     of investigations that reaches from Leibniz's
                                                             combinatorics to Turing's abstract machines.
    The Tripartite Nature of Computing                       Until the two strands come together in the
                                                             computer, they belong to different histories,
 Before trying to translate some of the above                the electronic calculator to the history of
questions and models into forms specific to t he             technology, the logic machine to the history of
history of computing, it may help to reflect a               mathematics,10 and they can be unfolded
bit on the complexity of the object of our                   separately without significant loss of fullness
study. The computer is not one thing, but                    or texture. Though they come together in the
many different things, and the same holds true               computer, they do not unite. The computer
of computing. There is about both terms a                    remains an amalgam of technological device
deceptive singularity to which we fall victim                and mathematical concept, which retain
when, as is now common, we prematurely                       separate identities despite their influence on
unite its multiple historical sources into a                 one another.
single stream, treating Charles Babbage's                             Thus the computer in itself embodies
                                                             one of the central problems of the history of
                                                             technology, namely the relation of science and
8
 In The Sciences of the Artificial Herbert Simon (1981;
cf. Newell and Simon 1976) argues forcefully for the
                                                             9
empirical natur e of computer research th at under lies       I do not make this claim in ignorance of Konrad
its mathematical trappings. The thinking of computer         Zuse's Z4 or Alan Turing's ACE, which realized
designers and programmers is embodied in the way             roughly the same goals as von Neuman n's along
their machines an d programs work, and th e langua ges       independent paths. Clearly the computer was "in the
they use to specify how things are to work are               air" by the 1940s. But it was the 1940s, not the 1840s.
themselves artifacts. Th e models they use are fil led
                                                             10
with images difficult or distractingly tedious to              I am including the history of mathematical logic in
translate into words; cf. Bolter (1984).                     the history of mathema tics
Mahoney                            History of Computing in t he History of Technology                  page 6

technology.11 Computing as an enterprise                      (data structures) and the relation of computer
deepens the problem. For not only are finite                  architecture to patterns of computation.
automata or denot at iona l sema ntic s                       Software engineering, conceived as a
independent of integrated circuits, they are                  deliberately provocative term in 1967 (Naur
also linked in only the most tenuous and                      and Randell 1969), has developed more as a
uncertain way to programs and programming,                    set of techniques than as a body of learning.
that is, to software and its production. Since                Except for a few university centers, such as
the mid-1960s experience in this realm has                    Carnegie-Mellon University, University of
revealed a third strand in the nature of the                  North Carolina, Berkeley, and Oxford, it
computer. Between the mathematics that                        remains primarily a concern of military and
makes the device theoretically possible and                   industrial R&D aimed at the design and
the electronics that makes it practically feasible            implementation of large, complex systems, and
lies the       programming that makes it                      the driving forces are cost and reliability.
intellectually, economically, and socially
useful.      Unlike the extremes, the middle                  History of Computing as History of
remains a craft, technical rather than                        Technology
techno logical, mathematical only in
appearance. It poses the question of the                       Consider, then, the history of computing in
relation of science and technology in a very                  light of current history of technology. Several
special form.                                                 lines of inquiry seem particularly promising.
          That tripartite structure shows up in               Studies such as those cited above offer a
the three distinct disciplines that are concerned             pano ply of models for tracing the patterns of
with the computer: electrical engineering,                    growth and progress in computing as a
computer science, and software engineering.                   technology. It is worth asking, for example,
Of these, the first is the most well established,             whether the computing industry has moved
since it predates the computer, even though its               forward more by big advances of radical
current focus on microelectronics reflects its                innovation or by small steps of improvement.
basic orientation toward the device. Computer                 Has it followed the process described by
science began to take shape during the 1960s,                 Nathan Rosenberg, whereby "... technological
as it brought together common concerns from                   improvement not only enters the structure of
mathematical logic (automata, proof theory,                   the economy through the main entrance, as
recursive function theory), mathematical                      when it takes the highly visible form of major
linguistics, and numerical analysis (algorithms,              patentable technological breakthroughs, but
computational complexity), adding to them                     that it also employs numerous and less visible
questions of the organization of information                  side and rear entrances where its arrival is
                                                              unobtrusive, unannounced, unobserved, and
                                                              uncelebrated" (Rosenberg 1979, p.26)? To
11
  It should sharpen the question for th e hist ory of         determine whet her that is the case will require
science as well, if only by giving special force to the       changes in the history of co mputing as it is
reciprocal influence of scientific theory and scientific      currently practiced. It will mean looking
instrumentation. But up to now at least it h as not           beyond "firsts" to the revisions and
attracted the same attention. The computer may well           modifications that made products work and
change that as the shaping of scientific concepts and
the pursuit of scientific inquiry come to depend on the       that account for their real impact. Given the
sta te of comput er techn ology.                              corporate, collaborative structure of modern
Mahoney                        History of Computing in t he History of Technology                    page 7

R&D, historians of computing must follow the              the special purposes of customers. Early on,
admonition once made to historians of                     programming had to conform to the narrow
technology to stop "substituting biography for            limits of speed          and memory set by
careful analysis of social processes". Without            vacuum-t ube circuitry. As largely exogenous
denigrat ing the role of heroes and pioneers, we          factors in the electronics industry made it
need more knowledge of computing's                        possible to expand those limits, and at the
equivalent of "shop practices, [and of] the               same time drastically lowered the cost of
activities of lower-level technicians in                  hardware, programming could take practical
factories" (Daniels 1970, p.11). The question             advantage of research into programming
is how to pursue t hat inquiry across the                 languages and compilers. Researchers' ideas of
variegated range of the emerging industry.                multiuser systems, interactive programming, or
         Viewing computing both as a system               virtual memory required advances in hardware
in itself and as a component of a variety of              at the same time that they drew out the full
larger systems may provide important insights             power of a new generation of machines. Just
into the the dynamics of its development and              as new architectures have challenged
may help to distinguish between its internal              established forms of programming, so too
and its external history. For example, it                 theoretical advances in computat ion and
suggests an approach to the question of the               artificial intelligence have suggested new ways
relation between hardware and software, often             of organizing processors (e.g. Backus 1977).
couched in the antagonistic form of one                             At present, the evolution of computing
driving the other, a form which seems to                  as a system and of its interfaces with other
assume that the two are relatively independent            systems of thought and action has yet to be
of one another. By contrast, linking them in a            traced. Indeed, it is not clear how many
system emphasizes their mutual dependence.                identifiable systems constitute computing
One expects o f a syst em that the relationship           itself, given the diverse contexts in which it has
among its internal components and their                   developed. We speak of the computer industry
relationships to external components will vary            as if it were a monolith rather than a network
over time and place but that they will do so in           of interdependent industries with separate
a way that maintains a certain equilibrium or             interests and concerns.          In addition to
homeostasis, even as the system itself evolves.           historically more analytical studies of
Seen in that light, the relation between                  individual firms, both large and small, we need
hardware and software is a question not so                analyses of t heir interaction and
much of driving forces, or of stimulus and                interdependence. The same holds for
response, as of constraints and degrees of                government and academia, neither of which
freedom. While in principle all computers have            has spoken with one voice on matters of
the same capacities as universal Turing                   computing. Of particular interest here may be
machines, in practice different architectures are         the system-building role o f the computer in
conducive to different forms of computing.                forging new links of interdependence among
Certain architectures have technical thresholds           universities, government, and industry after
(e.g. VSLI is a prerequisite to massively                 World War II.
parallel computing), others reflect conscious                        Arguing in "The Big Questions" that
choices among equally feasible alternatives;              creators of the machinery underpinning the
some have been influenced by the needs and                American System worked from a knowledge
concerns of software production, others by                of the entire sequence of operations in
Mahoney                           History of Computing in t he History of Technology                            page 8

production, 12 Daniels (1970) pointed to Peter               than one company found that the computer
Drucker's suggestion that "the organization of               reorganized de facto the lines of effective
work be used as a unifying concept in the                    managerial power.
history of technology." The recent volume by                          The computer seems an obvious place
Charles Bashe et al. on IBM's Early                          to look for insight into the question of whether
Computers illustrates the potential fruitfulness             new technologies respond to need or create it.
of that suggestion for the history of                        Clearly, the first computers responded to t he
computing. In tracing IBM's adaptation to the                felt need for high-speed, automat ic calculation,
computer, they bring out the corporate                       and that remained the justification for their
tensions and adjustments introduced into IBM                 early development during the late '40s.
by the need to keep abreast of fast-breaking                 Indeed, the numerical analysts evidently
developments in science and technology and in                considered the computer to be their baby and
turn to share its research with others.13 The                resented its adoption by "computerologists" in
computer reshaped R&D at IBM, defining new                   the late '50s and early '60s (Wilkinson 1971).
relations between marketing and research,                    But it seems equally clear that the computer
introducing a new breed of scientific personnel              beca me the core of an emergent
with new ways of doing things, and creating                  data-processing industry more by creating
new roles, in particular that of the                         demand than by responding to it. Much as
programmer. Whether the same holds true of,                  Henry Ford taught the nation how to use an
say, Bell Laboratories or G.E. Research                      automobile, IBM and its competitors taught
Laboratories, remains to be studied, as does                 the nation's businesses (and its government)
the structure of the R&D institutions                        how to use the computer. How much of the
established by the many new firms that                       technical development of the computer
constituted the growing computer industry of                 originated in the marketing division remains an
the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Tracy Kidder's (1981)              untold story central to an understanding of
frankly journalistic account of development at               modern technology.15 Kidder's Soul of a New
Data General has given us a tantalizing                      Machine again offers a glimpse of what that
glimpse of the patterns we may find. Equally                 story may reveal.
important will be studies of the emergence of                          One major factor in the creation o f
the data-processing shop, whether as an                      demand seems to have been the alliance
independent computer service or as a new
element in established institutions. 14 More
                                                             subsequent experience and data show that
                                                             programmers have made the transition with no
12
 Elting E. Morison (1974) h as pursued this point            significant loss of control over their work; cf. Boehm
along slight ly different but equally revealing lines.       (1981).

13                                                           15
 Lundstrom (1987) has recently chronicled the failure          See, for example, Burke (1970): "Thus technological
of some companies to make the r equisite adjustments.        inn ovation is not the product of society as a whole but
                                                             emanat es rather from certain segments within or
14
  The obvious citations here are Kraft (1977) and            outside of it; the men or institutions responsible for the
Greenbaum (1979), but both works are concerned more          innovation, to be successful, must 'sell' it to the general
with politics than with computing, and the focus of          public; and innovation does have the effect of creating
their political concerns, the "deskilling" of                broad social change.(p.23)" Ferguson (1979a) has
programmers through the impos ition of methods of            made a similar observation about sellin g new
structur ed programming, has proved ephemeral, as            techn ology.
Mahoney                        History of Computing in t he History of Technology                         page 9

between the computer and the nascent field of                      revolutionizing the procedures
operations research/management science. As                         of our factories and offices
the pages of the Harvard Business Review for                       with automation, but what
1953 show, the comput er and operat ions                           about out decision making? In
research hit the business stage together, each                     other words, isn't there a
a new and untried tool of management, both                         danger that our thought
clothed in the mantle of science. Against the                      processes will be left in the
fanciful backdrop of Croesus' defeat by                            horse-and-buggy stage while
camel-riding Persians, an IBM advertisement                        our operations are being run
proclaimed that "Yesterday ... 'The Fates'                         in the age of nucleonics,
Decided. Today ... Facts Are What Count".                          electronics, and jet propulsion?
 Appealing to fact-based strides in "military                      ... Are the engineering and
science, pure science, commerce,             and                   scientific symbols of our age
industry", the advertisement pointed beyond                        significant indicators of a need
data processing to "'mathematical models' of                       for change? (Hurni 1955, p.49)
specific processes, products, or situations, [by
which] man today can predetermine probable                Even at this early stage, the computer had
results, minimize risks and costs." In less vivid         acquired symbolic force in the business
terms, Cyril C. Herrmann of MIT and John F.               community and in society at large. We need to
Magee of Arthur D. Little introduced readers              know the sources of that force and how it
of HBR to "'Operations Research' for                      worked to weave the computer into the
Management" (1953), and John Diebold                      economic and social fabric.16
(1953) proclaimed "Automation - The New                           The government has played a
Technology". As Herbert Simon (1960, p.14)                determining role in at least four areas of
later pointed out, operations research was                computing: microelectronics; interactive,
both old and new, with roots going back to                real-time systems; artificial intelligence; and
Charles Babbage and Frederick W. Taylor. Its              software engineering. None of these stories
novelty lay precisely in its claim to provide             has been told by an historian, although each
'mathematical models' of business operations              promises deep insight into the issues raised
as a basis for rational decision-making.                  above. Modern weapons systems and the
Depending for t heir se nsit ivity on                     space program placed a premium on
computationally intensive algorithms and large            miniaturization of circuits. Given the costs of
volumes of data, those models required the                research, development, and tooling for
power of the computer.                                    production, it is hard t o imagine that the
         It seems crucial for the development
of the computer industry that t he business
community accepted the joint claims of OR                 16
                                                           Along these lines, historians of computing would do
and the computer long before either could                 well to remember that a line of writings on the nat ure,
validate them by, say, cost-benefit analysis.             impact, and even histor y of computing stretch ing from
The decision to adopt the new methods of                  Edmund C. Berkeley's (1949) Giant Brains through
"rational decision-making" seems itself to have           John Diebold's several volumes to               Edward
                                                          Feigenbaum's and Pamela McCorduck's (1983) The
been less than fully rational:
                                                          Fifth Generation stems from people with a product to
                                                          sell, whether management consulting or expert
          As business managers we are                     systems.
Mahon ey                      History of Comput ing in the History of Techn ology                          page 10

integrated circuit and the microprocessor                 software is an artifact of computing in the
would have emerged --at least as quickly as               business and government sectors during the
they did-- without government support. As                 '50s. Only when the computer left the research
Frank Rose (1984) put it in Into the Heart of             laboratory and the hands of the scientists and
the Mind, "The computerization of society ...             engineers did the writing of programs become
has essentially been a side effect of the                 a question of production. It is in that light that
computerization of war.(p.36)" More is                    we may most fruitfully view the development
involved than smaller computers. Architecture             of programming languages, programming
and software change in response to speed of               systems, operating systems, database and file
processor and size of memory. As a result, the            management systems, and communications and
rapid pace of miniaturization tended to place             networks, all of them aimed at facilitating the
already inadequate methods of software                    work of programmers, maintaining managerial
production under the pressure of rising                   control over them, and assuring the reliability
expectations. By the early 1970s the                      of their programs. The Babel of programming
Department of Defense, as the nation's single             languages in the '60s tends to distract attention
largest procurer of software, had declared a              from the fact that three of the most commonly
major stake in the development of software                used languages today are also among the
engineering as a body of methods and tools for            oldest: FORTRAN for scientific computing,
reducing the costs and increasing the reliability         COBOL for data processing, and LISP for
of large programs.                                        artificial intelligence. ALGOL might have
         As Howard Rheingold (1985) has                   remained a laboratory language had it and its
described in Tools for Thought                the         offspring not become the vehicles of structured
government was quick to seize on the interest             programming, a movement addressed directly
of computer scientists at MIT in developing               to the problems of programming as a form of
the computer as an enhancement and extension              production. 17
of human intellectual capabilities. In general,                     Central to the history of software is
that interest coincided with the needs of                 the sense of "crisis" that emerged in the late
national defense in the form of interactive               '60s as one large project after another ran
computing, visual displays of both text and               behind schedule, over budget, and below
graphics, mult i-user systems, and                        specifications. Though pervasive throughout
inter-computer networks. The Advanced                     the industry, it posed enough of a strategic
Research Projects Agency (later DARPA),                   threat for the NATO Science Committee to
soon became a source of almost unlimited                  convene an international conference in 1968
funding for research in these areas, a source
that bypassed the usual procedures of scientific
funding, in particular peer review. Much of the           17
                                                            An effort at internation al cooper ation in establishing
early research in artificial intelligence derived         a standard progr ammin g langu age, ALGOL from its
its funding from the same source, and its                 inception in 1956 to its final (and, some argued,
development as a field of computer science                over-refined) form in 1968 provides a multileveled
surely reflects that independence from the                view of computing in the '60s. While contributing
agenda of the discipline as a whole.                      richly to the conceptual development of programming
                                                          languages, it also has a political history which car ries
          Although we commonly speak of
                                                          down to the present in differing directions of research,
hardware and soft ware in tandem, it is worth             both in computer science and, perh aps most clearly, in
noting that in a strict sense the notion of               software engineering.
Mahon ey                        History of Comput ing in the History of Techn ology                  page 11

to address it. To emphasize the need fo r a                 extent it has created its own.
concerted effort along new lines, the                                 The question of sources illustrates
committee coined the term "software                         particularly well how recent work in the
engineering", reflecting the view that the                  history of technology may provide important
problem required the combination of science                 guidance to the history of computing, at the
and management thought characteristic of                    same time that the latter adds new perspectives
engineering. Efforts to define that combination             to that work. As noted above, historians of
and to develop the corresponding methods                    technology have focused new attention on the
constitute much of the history of computing                 non-verbal expressions of engineering practice.
during the 1970s, at least in the realm of large            Of the three main strands of computing, only
systems, and it is the essential background to              theoretical computer science is essentially
the story of Ada in the 1980s. It also reveals              verbal in nature. Its sources come in the form
apparently fundamental differences between                  most familiar to historians of science, namely
the formal, mathematical orientation of                     books, articles, and other less formal pieces of
European comput er scientists and t he                      writing, which by and large encompass the
practical, industrial focus of their American               thinking behind them. We know pretty well
counterparts. Historians of science and                     how to read them, even for what they do not
technology have seen those differences in the               say explicitly. Similarly, at the level of
past and have sought to explain them. Can                   institutional and social history, we seem to be
historians of computing use those explanations              on familiar ground, suffering largely from an
and in turn help to articulate them?                        embarrassment of wealth unwinnowed by time.
            The effort to give meaning to                             But the computers themselves and the
"software engineering" as a discipline and to               programs that were written for them constitute
define a place for it in the training of computer           a quite different range of sources and thus
professionals should call the historian's                   pose the challenge of det ermining how to read
attention to the constellation of questions                 them. As artifacts, computers present the
contained under the heading of "discipline                  problem of all electrical and electronic devices.
formation and professionalization". In 1950                 They are machines without moving parts. Even
computing consisted of a handful of specially               when they are running, they display no internal
designed machines and a handful of specially                action to explain their outward behavior. Yet,
trained programmers. By 1955 some 1000                      Tracy Kidder's (1981) portrait of Tom West
general-purpose computers required the                      sneaking a look at the boards of the new Vax
services of some 10,000 programmers. By                     to see how DEC had gone about its work
1960, the number of devices had increased                   reminds us that the actual machines may hold
fivefold, the number of programmers sixfold.                tales untold by manuals, technical reports, and
And so t he growth continued. With it came                  engineering drawings. Those sources too
associations, societies, journals, magazines,               demand our attention. When imaginatively
and claims t o professional and academic                    read, they promise to throw light not only on
standing. The development of these                          the designers but also on those for whom they
institut ions is an essential part of the the social        were designing. Through the hardware and its
history of computing as a technological                     attendant sources one can follow t he changing
enterprise. Again, one may ask to what extent               physiognomy of computers as they made their
that development has followed historical                    way from the laboratories and large
patterns of institutionalization and to what                installations to the office and the home.
Mahon ey                       History of Comput ing in the History of Techn ology                      page 12

Today's prototypical computer iconically links             who invented and improved the computer,
television to typewriter. How that form                    those who determined how to program it,
emerged from a roomful of tubes and switches               those who defined its scientific foundations,
is a matter of both technical and cultural                 those who established it as an industry in itself
history.                                                   and introduced it into business and industry all
           Though hard to interpret, the                   came to computing from some other
hardware is at least tangible. Software by                 background. With no inherent precedents for
contrast is elusively intangible. In essence, it is        their work, they had to find their own
the behavior of the machines when running. It              precedents. Much of the history of computing,
is what converts their architecture to action,             certainly for the first generation, but probably
and it is constructed with action in mind; the             also for the second and third, derives from the
programmer aims to make something happen.                  precedents these people drew from their past
What, then, captures software for the historical           experience. In that sense, the history of
record? How do we document and preserve an                 technology shaped the history of computing,
historically significant compiler, operating               and the history of computing must turn to the
sysem, or database? Computer scientists have               history of technology for initial bearings.
pointed to the limitations of the static program                      A specific example may help to
text as a basis for determining the program's              illustrate the point. Daniels (1970) stated as
dynamic behavior, and a provocative article                one of the really big questions the
(DeMillo et al. 1979) has questioned how                   development of the 'American System' and its
much the written record of programming can                 culmination in mass production. It is perhaps
tell us about the behavior of programmers.                 the central fact of technology in 19th-century
Yet, Gerald M. Weinberg (1971, Chapter 1)                  America, and every historian of the subject
has given an example of how programs may                   must grapple with it. So too, though Daniels
be read to reveal the machines and people                  did not make the point, must historians of
behind them. In a sense, historians of                     20th-century technology. For mass production
computing encounter from the opposite                      has become an historical touchstone for
direction the problem faced by the software                modern engineers, in the area of software as
industry: what constitutes an adequate and                 well as elsewhere.
reliable surrogate for an actually running                           For instance, in one of the major
program? How, in particular, does the                      invited papers at the NATO Software
historian recapture, or the producer anticipate,           Engineering Conference of 1968, M.D.
the component that is always missing from the              McIlroy of Bell Telephone Laboratories
static record of software, namely the user for             looked forward to the end of a "preindustrial
whom it is written and whose behavior is an                era" in programming. His metaphors and
essential part of it?                                      similes harked back to the machine-tool
         Placing the history of computing in the           industry and its methods of production.
context of the history of technology promises
a peculiarly recursive benefit. Although                              We undoubtedly produce
computation by machines has a long history,                         software by bac kward
computing in the sense I have been using here                       techniques. We undoubtedly
did not exist before the late 1940s. There were                     get the short end of the stick in
no computers, no programmers, no computer                           confrontations with hardware
scientists, no computer managers. Hence those                       people because they are the
Mahon ey                        History of Comput ing in the History of Techn ology                 page 13

        industrialists and we are the                       history of the activity. McIlroy was not
        crofters. Software production                       describing the state or even the direction of
        today appears in the scale of                       software in 1968. Rather, he was proposing
        industrialization somewhere                         an historical precedent on which to base its
        below the more backward                             future development. What is of interest to the
        construction industries. I think                    historian of computing is why McIlroy chose
        its proper place is considerably                    the model of mass production as that
        higher, and would like to                           precedent. Precisely what model of mass
        investigate the prospects for                       production did he have in mind, why did he
        mass-production techniques in                       think it appropriate or applicable to software,
        software.(McIlroy, 1969)                            why did he think his audience would respond
                                                            well to the proposal, and so on? The history
 What McIlroy had in mind was not replication               of technology provides a critical context for
in large numbers, which is trivial for the                  evaluating the answers, indeed for shaping the
computer, but rather programmed modules                     questions. For historians, too, the evolving
that might serve as standardized,                           techniques of mass production in the 19th
interchangeable parts to be drawn from the                  century constitute a model, or prototype, of
library shelf and inserted in larger production             technological development. Whether it is one
programs. A quotation from McIlroy's paper                  model or a set of closely related models is a
served as leitmotiv to the first part of Peter              matter of current scholarly debate, but some
Wegner's series on "CapitalIntensive Software               features seem clear. As a system it rested on
Technology" in the July 1984 number of IEEE                 foundat ions established in the early and
Software, which was richly illustrated by                   mid-19th century, among them in particular
photographs of capital industry in the 1930s                the development of the machine-tool industry,
and included insets on the history of                       which, as Nathan Rosenberg (1963) has
technology.18 By then McIlroy's equivalent to               shown, itself followed a characteristic and
interchangeable parts had become "reusable                  revealing pattern of innovation and diffusion of
software" and software engineers had                        new techniques. Even with the requisite
developed more sophisticated tools for                      precision machinery, methods of mass
producing it. Whether they were (or now are)                production did not transfer directly or easily
any closer to the goal is less important to the             from one industry to another, and its
historian than the continuing strength of the               introduction often took place in stages peculiar
model. It reveals historical self-consciousness.            to production process involved (Hounshell
            We should appreciate t hat                      1984). Software production may prove t o be
self-consciousness at the same time that we                 the latest variation of the model, or critical
view it critically, resisting the temptation to             history of technology may show how it has not
accept the comparisons as valid. An activity's              fit.
choice of historical models is itself part of the
                                                            Conclusion:          The   Real    Computer
                                                            Revolution
18
 One has to wonder about an article on software              We can take this example a step farther. From
engineering that envisions progress on an industrial
model and uses photographs taken from the Great
                                                            various perspectives, people have been drawn
Depression.                                                 to compare the computer to the automobile.
Mahon ey                        History of Comput ing in the History of Techn ology                 page 14

Apple, Atari, and others have boasted of                    compare technological societies? That is one
creating the Model T of microcomputers,                     of the "big questions" for historians of
clearly intending to convey the image of a car              technology, and it is only in the context of the
in every garage, an automobile that everyone                history of technology that it will be answered
could drive, a machine that reshaped American               for the computer.
life. The software engineers who invoke the                            From the very beginning, the
image of mass production have it inseparably                computer has borne the label "revolutionary".
linked in their minds to the automobile and its             Even as the first commercial machines were
interchangeable variations on a standard                    being delivered, commentators were extolling
theme.                                                      or fretting over the radical changes the
           The two analogies serve different aims           widespread use of computers would entail, and
within the computer industry, the first looking             few doubted their use would be widespread.
to the microcomputer as an object of mass                   The computer directed people's eyes toward
consumption, the second to software systems                 the future, and a few thousand bytes of
as objects of mass production. But they share               memory seemed space enough for the solution
the vision of a society radically altered by a              of almost any problem. On that both
new technology. Beneath the comparison lies                 enthusiasts and critics could agree. Computing
the conviction that the computer is bringing                meant unprecedented power for science,
about a revolution as profound as that                      industry, and business, and with the power
triggered by the automobile. The comparison                 came difficulties and dangers that seemed
between the machines is fascinating in itself.              equally unprecedented. By its nature as well as
Just how does one weigh the PC against the                  by its youth, the computer appeared to have
PT (personal transporter)?19 For that matter,               no history.
which PC is the Model T: the Apple ][, the                           Yet, "revolution" is an essentially
IBM, the Atari ST, the Macintosh? Yet the                   historical concept (Cohen 1986). Even when
question is deeper than that. What would it                 turning things on their head, one can only
mean for a microcomputer to play the role of                define what is new by what is old, and
the Model T in determining new social,                      innovation, however imaginative, can only
economic, and political patt erns?            The           proceed from what exists. The computer had
historical term in that comparison is not the               a history out of which it emerged as a new
Model T, but Middletown (Lynd and Lynd                      device, and computing took shape from other,
1929), where in less than forty years                       continuing activities, each with its own
"high-speed steel and Ford cars"              had           historical momentum. As the world of the
fundamentally changed the nature of work and                computer acquired its own form, it remained
the lives of the workers. Where is the                      embedded in the worlds of science,
Middletown of today, similarly transformed by               technology, industry, and business which
the presence of the microcomputer? Where                    structured computing even as they changed in
would one look? How would one identify the                  response to it. In doing so they linked the
changes? What patterns of social and                        history of computing to their own histories,
i nt e ll ec t ua l b e h a v io r m a r k such             which in turn reflected the presence of a
transformation? In short, how does one                      fundamentally new resource.
                                                                     What is truly revolutionary about the
                                                            computer will become clear only when
19
 The latter designation stems from Frand (1983).            computing acquires a proper history, one that
Mahon ey                         History of Comput ing in the History of Techn ology                      page 15

ties it to other technologies and thus uncovers              Boehm, Barry. 1981. Sof tware Engineering
the precedents that make its innovations                     Economics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.
significant. Pursued within the larger enterprise            Burke, John G. 1970. "Comment: The complex nature
of the history of technology, the history of                 of explanation in the historiography of technology."
computing will acquire the context of place                  Technology and C ulture, 11, pp. 22-26.
and time that gives history meaning.
                                                             Buxton, J.N. and Brian Randell (eds.). 1970 Software
                                                             Engineering Techniques: Report on a conference
              Acknowledgements                               sponsored by the NATO Science Committee, Rome,
                                                             Italy, 27th to 31st October 1969. Brussels, Scientific
 This article is a slightly revised version of a             Affairs Department, NATO.
position paper prepared for the Seminar on                   Cf. Naur et al. (1976).
Information Technologies in Historical
Context, held at the National Museum of                      Ceruzzi, Paul E. 1982 Reckoners: The Prehistory of
                                                             the Digital Computer, From Relays to the Stored
American History, 11 September 1987. It                      Program Concept, 1935-1945. Westport, CT,
benefitted at that time from the critical                    Greenwood Press.
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Aspray, I. Bernard Cohen, and Arthur                         Cohen, I. Bernard. 1986. Revolutions in Science.
Norberg. The research from which it stems has                Cambridge, MA, Har vard University Press.
been generously supported by the Alfred P.
                                                             Cowan, Ruth. 1983. More Work for Mother: The
Sloan, Jr. Foundation under its New Liberal                  Ironies of Household Technology from the Open
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