Review: CHOICE

From the review:

Those interested in computer history will enjoy it; those hiring or managing programmers need to read it.

I had always hoped that, despite the constraints of the academic monograph, that The Computer Boys would be useful and interesting to working programmers.  Glad to see that at least one reviewer agrees!

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.

The politics of programming languages

In Chapter 2 (“Tower of Babel”) I discuss the ways in which different programming languages (FORTRAN, COBOL, and ALGOL, among others) embodied different social, organizational, and professional agendas.  Some of this was a reflection of  particular problem domains — FORTRAN was obviously designed for scientific applications, and COBOL for business use.  But more significantly, many languages were intended to discipline what was seen as a unreliable and recalcitrant labor force.  As Fred Gruenberger of the RAND Corporation noted in a 1962 Symposium on Programming Languages, “You know, I’ve never seen a hot dog language come out yet in the last 14 years — beginning with Mrs. Hopper’s A-0 compiler … that didn’t have tied to it the claim in its brochure that this one will eliminate all programmers. The last one we got was just three days ago from General Electric (making the same claim for the G-WIZ compiler) that this one will eliminate programmers. Managers can now do their own programming; engineers can do their own programming, etc. As always, the claim seems to be made that programmers are not needed anymore.”

The notion that programming languages are “artifacts with politics” is a provocative one, and I explore the idea more in my chapter on the Cambrian explosion of programming languages. What follows is an excerpt discussing the gendered nature of many of the advertisements for programming languages that appeared in this period:

In its “Meet Susie Meyers” advertisements for its PL/1 programming language, the IBM Corporation asked its users an obviously rhetorical question: “Can a young girl with no previous programming experience find happiness handling both commercial and scientific applications, without resorting to an assembler language?” The answer, of course, was an enthusiastic “yes!” Although the advertisement promised a “brighter future for your programmers,'”(who would be free to “concentrate more on the job, less on the language”) it also implied a low-cost solution to the labor crisis in software. The subtext of appeals like this was non-too-subtle: If pretty little Susie Meyers, with her spunky miniskirt and utter lack of programming experience, could develop software effectively in PL/1, so could just about anyone.

The actual advertisement was a two-page, full-color extravaganza.

The Job Market for Programmers

Looking at the job advertisements for computer programmers in the early 1960s, it is clear that many programmers were concerned about the future of their profession.   On the one hand, there were many opportunities for horizontal mobility within the profession: an even moderately skilled programmer could readily move from company to company, and had little to fear in terms of long-term unemployment.  On the other hand, it was not clear the programmers had much vertical mobility: for a variety of reasons, programmers were often not seen as being managerial potential.  Many of the advertisements from this period appeal to this sense of frustration and insecurity.  The overall message seemed to be “come work for our company; we will treat you as being more than a mere technician.”

Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise