This clip of Grace Hopper’s 1986 appearance on the David Letterman show has been making the rounds of the Internet. She talks about working on the Harvard Mark I, and Letterman refers to her as the “Queen of Software.” At this point, Hopper was 80 years old. As always, a remarkable presence…
There are a number of decent documentaries on various aspects of the history of the computer, but not many on computer programmers. Among other things, programming as an activity is difficult to represent in ways that are visually interesting.
Nevertheless, I came across a work in progress on the origins of APL that looks intriguing. The producer/director Catherine Lathwell is the daughter of Richard Lathwell, one of the original APL developers. There is also Top Secret Rosies, which I was involved with, as well as To Dream Tomorrow, an excellent film about Ada Lovelace. There are also a host of related films that are not histories of programming per se, but which are nevertheless relevant.
The world still awaits its great film about the programmer heroes of the computer revolution, however!
In the recent issue of the IEEE Spectrum, Ada Brunstein has an interesting piece on the significance of job titles in which she uses Google Ngram Viewer to explore changing trends in the language used to describe computer programmers. She references my research from The Computer Boys and talks about some of the now-forgotten alternatives that were proposed during the 1960s, which included “flow-charts‑man, comptologist, and even turingineer. More serious options included informatician or datolotist.”1
My own particular favorite was “applied epistemologist.”
The Kindle Edition of The Computer Boys Take Over is now available from Amazon!
Another review, this time from the history of science journal Isis:
Histories of computing have often focused on the history of the computer and even then, more often than not, on the hardware rather than the software. Nathan Ensmenger’s book, in contrast, is a welcome investigation of the social history of the programmer, would-be professionals who were located at an important intersection: they built the tools (the software, the programming languages, the documentation) and at the same time had to carve out a place in often resentful organizations…
Ensmenger has provided our best account of this phenomenon so far.
In preparing a recent talk, I came across this image from a 1962 article in Life Magazine on IBM. It captures nicely the stylish enthusiasm and modernist appeal of the computer professions that are too often lost in the focus on eccentric and scruffy hacker-types. Computing in the 1960s was the place to be.
Here is another of my favorites, this from 1961, featuring an computer room full of female computer operators:
In The Mythical Man-Month, his classic post-mortem account of the software development fiasco that was the IBM System/360 operating system, Frederick Brooks lamented the lack of “conceptual unity” in most software architecture. The very best software architecture, Brooks argued, was the work not of a team but an individual, the reflection of the vision of a single master designer . Like the great medieval cathedral at Reims, software should designed for coherence, unity, and beauty. Like Steve Jobs would famously declare decades later, in computing as in all of life, Brooks believed that “Great designs come from great designers.”
At the core of The Mythical Man-Month was the idea of the “chief programming team,” in which a single master software architect would direct the work of a support staff of programmers, code librarians, and other technical staff. Like a surgeon in an operating theater, the chief programmer was master of his domain, responsible for overseeing the entire process from start to finish. Brooks used several names for the chief programmer: the one that was most often borrowed by actual software developers was “the super-programmer.”
In the above ad for National Computer Analysts, Inc., of Princeton, NJ, the idea of the super-programmer is taken much more literally.
“A book, then, or a computer, or a program comes into existence first as an ideal construct, built outside time and space, but complete in the mind of the author. It is realized in time and space, by pen, ink, and paper, or by wire, silicon, and ferrite. The creation is complete when someone reads the book, uses the computer, or runs the program, thereby interacting with the mind of the maker.”1
- Frederick Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (Addison-Wesley, 1975) ↩
A couple new reviews, including a few that are short but sweet:
In The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, Nathan Ensmenger offers an in-depth and well- researched analysis of the difficulties faced in the early decades of digital computer programming… The Computer Boys Take Over offers a detailed account of the rise of computer programming, the history of software, and how these histories have come to play such a central role in the so-called ‘‘ease’’ with which we compute today.
I highly recommend this book.
Technology & Culture
Overall, Ensmenger’s book is an eloquent and very interesting read. His methodic approach is convincing. Thanks to his broad sources and his entertaining style he often invites those who know the field to a humorous self- reflection. He consequently uses general language and aims at reaching out to readers from different fields. The book deserves such a broad reader audience.
The Information Society
Read The Computer Boys Take Over, by Nathan Ensmenger, a lively history of the computer scientists and software engineers who have changed our world.
The nerd news website ArsTechnica recently published an article by Mathew Lasar on the history of the UNIVAC I computer. It’s a nice little piece that draws heavily on Kurt Beyer’s excellent recent biography of Grace Hopper and Paul Ceruzzi’s classic History of Modern Computing (one of the earliest of the books published as part of MIT Press’ History of Computing series, of which The Computer Boys Take Over is the latest entry).
Lasar highlights a issue relevant to the history of computer programming that I had previously not encountered (or at least noticed). In discussing the female programmers that Grace Hopper had cultivated at the Eckert Mauchly Computer Company, he notes that after the sale of EMCC to Remington Rand, many of these women left to pursue other opportunities, largely because of the lack of respect they felt in their new big-corporation environment:
“On top of that, new management did not sympathize with EMCC’s female programmers, among them Grace Hopper, who by 1952 had written the UNIVAC’s first software compiler. ‘There were not the same opportunities for women in larger corporations like Remington Rand,’ she later reflected. ‘They were older companies, and the jobs had been stereotyped.’”
During the labor crisis in programming that emerged in the 1950s, these women had plenty of other opportunities, Lasar argues, and many departed for other, more enlightened employers. Read the whole article. A nice piece, and it is good to see this history get rediscovered for a contemporary audience (particularly in a venue as popular as ArsTechnica).
In an article in today’s Washington Post, ombudsman Patrick Pexton addresses a recent Outlook essay that “borrows” heavily from my academic research. In that piece, a freelance journalist named Anna Lewis repeats my discussion of The Computer Girls article in the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine. This is work for which I am well known, having written about it in both The Computer Boys Take Over and in an essay published in a recent collection edited by Tom Misa called Gender Codes: Why Women are Leaving Computing (Wiley, 2010). In the original blog post that prompted the Washington Post piece, this “journalist” does link to my book site, although she does not mention me by name. She also presents her discovery of the Cosmo Girl article as entirely her own, and even copies images (again, without attribution) from this site. In the Washington Post piece, there are no links, no mention of me or my work, and only a vague allusion to the Misa collection. Lewis presents this material as being entirely her own, with no recognition of my contributions, or the work of other historians.
Whatever the Washington Post lawyers might argue, this is clearly a case of plagiarism. No question, no ambiguity. If a student had turned in a paper like this, I would have failed him or her. The guidelines on plagiarism that we provide our students at the University of Texas, for example, make this clear: ”Plagiarism is another serious violation of academic integrity. In simplest terms, this occurs if you represent as your own work any material that was obtained from another source, regardless how or where you acquired it.” In this case, the plagiarism did not involve copying word-for-word my material (although the original blog post by Lewis comes pretty close), but rather the ideas. Again, the standard definition of plagiarism makes it clear that plagiarism includes not just verbatim repetition but also the “use of another person’s research, phrasing, conclusions or unique descriptions without proper attribution.”
In this case, the key theft is the sources and interpretation. The discovery of the long-lost Cosmo article, the identification of its significance to contemporary debates about gender and computing, and the situation of this material in the context of late 1960s developments in the computer industry, are mine alone, and are recognized by other professional historians as significant insights. This material was not commonly known, was not just there to be found, and would have made little sense to anyone without the analysis I provide.
This kind of intellectual theft is increasingly common in the Internet-era, but this is no excuse. If another newspaper had summarized, without attribution, an article published in the Washington Post, I doubt that they would have had such a casual attitude. In my several conversations with Patrick Pexton, he gave every impression that he regarded this as a serious breach of professional ethics on the part of Anna Lewis. The first draft of his opinion piece, which he shared with me earlier this week, took a more principled stand. The final version, however, seems to have been whitewashed by the Washington Post legal counsel.
I am generally thrilled when people benefit from my research. I hope that they learn from it and extend it in new directions. I would have been happy to write this incident off as a simple mistake, or a consequence of moving from one medium to another (in this case, from the web, which allows for hyperlinks, to print, which does not). It is only the fact that neither the author nor the Post provided any apology and no official acknowledgement of the problem that makes me upset.
In any case, as to the question of attribution, let the readers decide. Unfortunately, my essay from the Misa collection is not available online (the publisher owns the rights), although you can read a draft version from the conference presentation here. Does that first sentence look familiar? It gets repeated almost verbatim on the original Lewis blog. Do the larger ideas there and in Washington Post article seem surprisingly similar to you? Do you believe that it provided proper attribution — or indeed, any at all? The answer seems pretty obvious, no matter what the Washington Post might choose to believe.
The great irony is that, had the author and the Washington Post simply apologized to me and corrected the online version by adding a link, the matter probably would have ended there. I very deliberately kept this private, and have not sought to embarrass either the Post of the author. In choosing to deny responsibility, they made this a public matter, and demanded a response from me.
[UPDATE] The media watchdog site stinkyjournalism.com has covered the incident. This is not the first time that the Washington Post has struggled with “proper attribution.” However, they seem to have higher standards when it happens to them.