It has been a busy month of conferences and speaking engagements. Forgive the lack of recent updates.
The Commission for the History and Philosophy of Computing hosted the second in a series of HAPOC conferences in Paris this year. This was an extraordinarily full and productive conference, with speakers and participants from all over Europe, the UK, and the United States. My contribution was a talk on “the multiple meanings of flowcharts.”
The Society for the History of Technology conference in Portland, Maine, featured many papers in computing related issues. The Special Interest Group on Computing and Information Science (SIGCIS) hosted a day of talks devoted entirely to the history of computing. My SHOT talk was devoted to exploring what I am calling “the environmental history of computing.”
At the National Academy of the Sciences, I helped celebrate the 150th anniversary of the NAS by participating in the annual Sackler Colloquium. I talked about the history of NAS sponsorship of computing and information, and facilitated a panel with David Farber, the “grandfather of the Internet” and Robert Kahn, the co-inventor of TCP/IP and one of the “fathers of the Internet.” Videos of the conference talks can be found on Youtube.
Finally, I attended for the first time the annual conference of the Association for Internet Researchers in Denver, Colorado. Our panel was organized around the idea of revisiting some of the canonical works in our respective disciplines (history, anthropology, communications) in light of changes in information technology. I spoke about Bruno Latour, the biological sciences, and the classic text Laboratory Life.
The Computer History Museum has announced the winner of its 2013 book prize, which went to Joseph November for his excellent Biomedical Computing: Digitizing Life in the United States (Johns Hopkins, 2012).
This is a project that I have been following since it was a dissertation, and it is exciting to see it receive the recognition that it deserves. There is surprisingly few historical accounts of the use of computers in scientific research, and this is an exemplary study.
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. 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.
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.
Business History recently published a review of The Computer Boys by the distinguished historian Richard John, the author of (among other things) two books that have had a lasting influence on my teaching and research: Spreading the News: the American Postal System From Franklin to Morse and Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications. A brief excerpt from his review:
Ensmenger tells the history of a neglected, vitally important occupation group. In so doing, he provides a solid foundation on which others can build to analyse how computer programming has, and has not, transformed US business, and how business managers have, and have not, met the recurrent technical demands that computer programming poses not only for everyday operations, but also for business strategy, corporate governance, and the innovative process.
John notes that the book is not itself a business history, but recognizes the significance of software development to most modern firms and the central paradox that software often poses for even the most computer-savvy corporations: namely, that “Over time, computer hardware has become progressively cheaper and faster, a fact that is well known; less well known, but no less consequential, is the fact that over time consumer software has become more expensive and less reliable.” There are historians of computing, such as Martin Campbell-Kelly and Jim Cortada, who have started to develop a business history of software, but this is still much work to be done. The Computer Boys was very deliberately designed to capture the previously invisible perspective of the computer programer; I would love to write a companion volume that deals with the business history of the software contractors of this same critical period. My current project on flowcharts represents one attempt to get started on this challenging project.
The long-awaited (by me, at least) film Computer Chess is now out. Directed by Andrew Bujalski, this is one of the few full-length fictional cinematic accounts of computer programmers. In this case, these are the programmers who developed artificial intelligence programs to compete in chess tournaments.
I have written extensively about the role of these chess tournaments in my paper entitled “Is Chess the Drosophila of AI? A Social History of an Algorithm,” published in early 2012 in the journal Social Studies of Science. This was one of my favorite and I think, most original, of my publications in the history of software. You can read a draft version of the paper here.
As an additional coincidence, during the year that I spent on the faculty of the School of Information at the University of Texas in Austin, I accidentally followed Bujalski around. Every time I would talk to someone about my work — which I thought was incredibly novel — they would nod knowingly and say, “yeah, there was this guy filming a movie about that….”
I have not yet seen the film, but I am looking forward to it. A review to follow sometime soon.
UPDATE: I recently found out that the “Is Chess the Drosophila of AI? a Social History of an Algorithm” (Social Studies of Science, 2012) was awarded the 2013 Maurice Daumas Prize by the International Committee for the History of Technology (ICOHTEC). For an historian of technology, this is a great honor.