Category Archives: Resources

Therefore is the name of it called Babel…

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The notion of the computer programming “language” is a familiar concept to even the casual user of computer technology, but this is not a concept that would have been familiar to the earliest programmers.  The development of linguistic metaphors for the activity of programming took some time to develop, and there is some excellent new work being done in this area.1  Almost as soon as people start talking about programming languages, however, they also start criticizing the seemingly bewildering array and variety of such languages.  The “Tower of Babel” metaphor was commonly invoked to describe this profusion of programming languages.  In fact, there is an entire chapter of The Computer Boys devoted to discussion, appropriately entitled “Tower of Babel.”

The iconic reference to the Tower of Babel problem is the cover of the January 1961 issue of the Communications of the ACM, which featured the tower on the cover.

 

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In a recent research trip to the Charles Babbage Institute, however, I discovered an earlier reference, a portion of first page of which is represented above.   This was a 1959 paper by Betty Jo Ellis, who was then working at the Department of Defense.  I don’t know much else about Ellis, but judging from the small set of papers at the Babbage, she was not only a sharp programmer but had a wicked sense of humor.

 

  1. Mark Priestley, David Nofre, and Gerard Alberts have a piece coming out in Technology & Culture shortly on this topic.

An Anthropologist Among the Programmers

Although there has been a fair amount of popular writing on contemporary programming culture, there are very few rigorous and sustained academic studies of programming practice.  Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University, researches and writes about hacker culture and communities, and her new book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking is out and available for purchase.  She was recently profiled in Wired.

I am a little biased, because Biella is a friend, but her work is absolutely fabulous.  She also has done an excellent job communicating her scholarly work to the general public, and has been widely covered in the media.

The Unknown Programmer

One of the big goals of The Computer Boys book was to help shift the focus of center of gravity of the history of computing from hardware to software, from machines to people — and not just the usual people, the “great man” inventors that dominate most popular histories of computing, but the thousands of largely anonymous men and women who worked to construct the computerized systems that form the basic infrastructure of our modern, information-centric society.

It has been a source of great embarrassment to me, therefore, to have people ask me about the man pictured on the cover of my book and not to have any real information about who he was or what he did. I did not even know exactly which computer he was standing in front of. [For those of you not familiar with the publishing business, my ignorance is somewhat excusable: in most cases, authors have no input into the book design process, and I never communicated directly with the graphic designers who did the (excellent) cover design.]

Thanks to Richard Gillespie, the head of the History & Technology department at the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, I now know exactly who this person was. His name was Trevor Pearcey, and the machine he is standing in front of is the CSIR Mark 1, the fourth stored program computer ever constructed. Pearcey was trained as a physicist and mathematician who in 1945 left England for Australia to work at the Radiophysics Division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The CSIR Mark 1, which he helped design, ran its first program in 1949 and was operational by 1951. The Museum Victoria has an excellent exhibit on this early and important computer.

Trevor Pearcey went on to become one of the great figures in Australian computing. The Pearcey Foundation and the Pearcey National Award were established in honor of his accomplishments. He was born in 1919, and died in 1998.

Top Secret Rosies

The history of women in computing is a story that is only just beginning to be told. There are certain women, like Grace Hopper, who are (deservingly) well-covered in the history, but many of the women who made important contributions are still unknown.

A recent documentary, Top Secret Rosies, by LeAnn Erickson, is currently touring the country. The film tells the story of the female computers who worked on computational projects during the second world war. As of the historical consultants and “talking heads” on the film, I can recommend it highly. There seems to be a burst of coverage on the film everywhere from CNN to Slashdot.

Top Secret Rosies Trailer from LeAnn Erickson on Vimeo.