High Tech History

A good book review is hard to write.

Book reviews are a difficult genre. A good book review has to quickly and concisely summarize an author’s argument, situate that argument in a larger literature, and critically analyze its strengths and weaknesses. All a thousand words or so.

A really stellar book review will do all these things and will add additional insight to the original question that an author was trying to address.

In another serendipitous discover of another exceptionally smart blog, I discovered High Tech History, which is dedicated to exploring the connections between the history of technology and contemporary innovations. They liked my book, which was gratifying, but they also made some interesting connections that even I had not thought of. The most fun and interesting was to everyone’s favorite engineering anti-hero, Dilbert. Dilbert is the obvious analog to my 1960s computer boys. I should have made this connection myself.

Here is a selection from their review:

Ensmenger has crafted an orderly and well-organized argument that the dynamics of managing computer firms have often been as complex as the subject matter itself. Social interaction, management structures and gender have played pivotal roles in the development of computer technology, which defy the traditional notion that mathematics and computers are somehow above such dynamics. In this important way, The Computer Boys Take Over is learned, well-documented with citations, and often humorous – with numerous period cartoons and company advertisements that nicely support the text. Such a study of computing’s early and arguably most important years, is long overdue.

Check out the full review, and add High Tech History to your RSS feed reader and blogroll. A real gem of a site.

The Enlightened Economist

One of the nice things about online reviews is that, by tracking them back, you can discover new and interesting blogs. The latest in my list is The Enlightened Economist, where Diane Coyle reviews a prodigious range and number of books. Here is an excerpt from her review of The Computer Boys.

This interesting social history of computer programming, The Computer Boys Take Over by Nathan Ensmenger, is essentially a story of the struggle for power inside corporations. As I noted in my pre-view of the book, programming was initially thought of as a rather lowly support function, and it took some time for the designers of the massive early computers to realise that writing software was going to be a key function. When they did, out went the women programmers who were rather prominent in those early days (although some, such as Admiral Grace Hopper, remained influential), and in came the ‘boys’.

Reading The Enlightened Economist reminds me how many good books there are for me to read (and how few of these I am actually able to get around to — even as a professional academic). An impressive blog.

Excerpt: Where did all the women go?

The story of the “computer boys” begins, intriguingly enough, with a group of women. Throughout the book the role of female computer programmers is described, as is the process by which computer programming was gradually made masculine. The question of gender in the computing fields, and in academic computer science in particular is still a pressing problem for educators, industry, policy-makers, and society in general.

The following is from Chapter 8: Visible Technicians:

In 1969 the Data Processing Management Association presented Rear Admiral Grace Hopper with its very first “man of the year” award. That a professional society in a technical field would, in this period, even consider awarding its very first major award to a woman seems astounding to modern sensibilities. In the decades since the “ENIAC girls” became the world’s first computer programmers, the computer professions have become stereotypically masculine, and female enrollments in computer science programs have been declining since the mid-1980s. Participation rates for women in the computing fields are a perennial problem for the industry, and this has been the subject of much study and debate for the past several decades.

It was not always thus. As we have seen, women played an early and important role in the history of computing. Some of them became quite influential: in addition to Grace Hopper, Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Sammet, and Beatrice Helen Worsley, among others, rose to positions of considerable prominence in the early computing industry … However, during this same period the computer programming community was also actively pursuing a strategy of professional development that would eventually make it one of the most stereotypically male professions, inhospitable to most women.

For more information on women in computing, see Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing.

Computer Revolutionaries

From the introduction:

“Chances are that you or someone close to you makes their living “working with computers.” In the decades since the 1950s, the technical specialists most directly associated with the electronic digital computer—computer programmers, systems analysts, and network and database administrators—have assumed an increasingly active and visible role in the shaping of our modern information society.”

Read more from the introduction to The Computer Boys Take Over

From the book jacket: Ron Kline

The Computer Boys Take Over rewrites the history of computing by recounting the development of software in terms of labor, gender, and professionalization. Ensmenger meets the long-standing challenge to reform computer history by employing themes of vital interest to the general history of science and technology.”

Ronald Kline, Bovay Professor in History and Ethics of Engineering, Cornell University

Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise