The History of Science take on The Computer Boys

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.


The IBM Story

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:

The Life Magazine archive in Google images is an excellent source for images of computer people.

Super-programmer to the Rescue!

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

  1.  Frederick Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month:  Essays on Software Engineering (Addison-Wesley, 1975)

New reviews, both academic and otherwise

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.

Contemporary Sociology

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.


Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise