“Colossal Genius: Tutte, Flowers, and a Bad Imitation of Turing.” Communications of the ACM 60:1 (January 2017): 29-35. Making fun of The Imitation Game is easy. Maybe too easy. So I do a bit of that, but try to use lessons from what the film does wrong to illuminate the actual history of Bletchley Park. This focuses on the decryption of the German "Tunny" code, and particularly on the contribution of Bill Tutte in figuring out how the coding worked and devising statistical methods to beat it, and of Tommy Flowers who led the design of a powerful series of electronic "Colossus" machines to implement those methods. (Online at ACM)
"How Charles Bachman Invented the DBMS, a Foundation of Our Digital World," Communications of the ACM 59: 7 (July 2016):25-30. This builds on some of my earlier work on Bachman and the origins of the database management system, but also asks what stories about some kind of IT innovation resonate with the public and others don't. (Online at ACM)
“IBM Rebuilds Europe: The Curious Case of the Transnational Typewriter,” Enterprise & Society 17:2 (June 2016 with Petri Paju):265-300. This article blends perspectives from business history, European history, and the history of technology to explore IBM's development of a unique typewriter manufacturing system that overcame post-War trade restrictions to force cooperation between recent enemies. This laid the groundwork for its subsequent domination of the European computer industry and anticipated political efforts to build a common European market. (Online at E&S)(preprint online locally)
"Where Code Comes From: Architectures of Automatic Control from Babbage to Algol," Communications of the ACM 59:1 (Jan 2016, with Mark Priestley): 39-44. A more technical follow up to our previous "Innovators Assemble" this explores the origins of the computer program. It looks both at the evolution of capabilities for the automatic sequencing of computational operations and at the initial adoption of the term "programming" during the 1940s. (Online at ACM)(Online locally).
“Innovators Assemble: Ada Lovelace, Walter Isaacson, and the Superheroines of Computing,” Communications of the ACM 58:9 (Sept 2015):20-27 (with Mark Priestley). Brings together Walter Isaacson and The Avengers, to argue that popular discussion of women in computing is distorted by its reliance on superhero narratives. We look closely at the actual historical roles of Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and the "Women of ENIAC" to argue that real history can be more inspirational than cheerleading, as well as more accurate.(Online at ACM)(Online locally)
“Von-Neumann-Architektur, Speicherprogrammierung und modernes Code-Paradigma” Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, 12 (2015):127-139. A translation of some of my work on the origins of computer architecture into German, thanks to my friends at Siegen University. (Volume at diaphenes) (Online locally)
"The Tears of Donald Knuth: Has the History of Computing Taken a Tragic Turn?" Communications of the ACM 58:1 (Jan 2015):40-44. Beloved computer scientist Donald Knuth issued an appeal: "Let's not dumb down the history of computer science." I responded, arguing that the responsibility to write and support the kind of technical, "internalist" history favored by Knuth lay with computer scientists themselves. It went viral, and to date has been downloaded more than 115,000 times from the ACM Digital Library. (Online at ACM)(Online locally) (Feb 20, 2015)
"Histories of The Internet: Introducing the Special Issue of Information & Culture" (with Andrew L. Russell and William H. Dutton). Information & Culture 50:2 (May-June 2015):143-159. The introduction to a special issue we edited. It explores the gap between modern sense of the Internet as something very broad, including large parts of our daily human experience, and the rather narrow framing of most current work on Internet history. (Online preprint)(Online Project Muse) (Oct-29-2014)
"Evgeny Morozov, Author of the Quixote" & "Some notes on my Morozov/Menard address,"satirical posts to the SIGCIS.org "Members" listserv on Oct 12 & 13, 2014. What Evgeny Morozov did with the work of Eden Medina shows that he is even more brilliant than he says he is. Also more modest. Borges tells us why. (Online locally) (Oct-16-2014)
"We Have Never Been Digital," Communications of the ACM 57:9 (Sept 2014):24-28. This "Historical Reflections" column explores the history of the idea of the digital and its connection to the idea of revolutionary social change, arguing that humanities scholars should apply their critical tools to the analysis of computing rather than rushing to embrace "digital humanities" as a transformative new approach. (Online at ACM)(Online locally). (Sep-2-2014)
"Los Alamos Bets on ENIAC: Nuclear Monte Carlo Simulations, 1947-48" (with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope), IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 36:3 (Jul-Sep 2014):42-63. Part three of the trilogy looks at the ENIAC program developed to simulate nuclear fission, the first large-scale application of the Monte Carlo method. This was also the first modern computer code ever run, and the surviving documentation gives a rich picture of its development by a team including John and Klara von Neumann and Nick Metropolis. (online IEEE CS)(online locally). (Sep-2-2014)
"Engineering 'The Miracle of the ENIAC': Implementing the Modern Code Paradigm" (with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope), IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 36:2 (April-June 2014):41-59. The second in our ENIAC trilogy looks at the conversion of ENIAC to the modern control method in 1948, comparing its capabilities with those of other computers of the late 1940s. While the fact of the conversion is well known its details, including such basic things as who was responsible and whether it took place in April or September, have previously been rather fuzzy. (online IEEE CS)(online locally). (Jul-07-2014)
"Reconsidering the Stored Program Concept" (with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope), IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 36:1(January-March 2014):4-17. The first in a trilogy of articles from a major research project I've been leading into the history of ENIAC and its modification in 1947-8 to become the first computer able to execute programs written in the modern form described in von Neumann's seminal "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC." That new approach is often called the "stored program concept" and this paper is less about ENIAC itself and more about probing the history of that idea and its limitations as a description of what was novel about the new direction computers took in the second half of the 1940s. (online IEEE CS)(online locally) (Mar-24-2013)
(updated) "How the Future Shaped the Past: The Case of the Cashless Society," (with Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo & David Stearns) Enterprise & Society 15:1 (March 2014):103-131. The "cashless society" idea is interesting for several reasons. First, it has managed to retain an allure as futuristic and new despite being fifty years old. Second, it's a vision of the future defined in terms of what is absent rather than what is present. This is probably a source of its longevity. Third, the imagined future itself has had considerable power to shape the direction of technological and institutional change. I've been exploring this idea for a while with Bernardo Batiz-Lazo and Dave Stearns, including extracts from our work adapted for a Bloomberg blog post and a short article in a Swedish business school publication. Now our article has appeared in one of the leading business history journals. (online OUP)(online Project Muse)(online locally) (Mar-02-2014)
"Actually, Turing Did Not Invent the Computer," Communications of the ACM 57:1 (Jan 2014):36-41. Another outgrowth of my investigation of ENIAC in the context of computing practice during the mid-1940s. This article challenged some overheated claims made recently for the importance of Turing's theoretical work of the 1930s to the development of what are often called "stored program" computers a decade later. This gave an opportunity to sketch Turing's actual contributions to computing, to explore the interplay between the origins of computer science and computer technology, and to point readers towards some excellent literature on the early history of electronic computing. (Online at ACM)(Online locally) (Jan-25-2014)
Some Older Publications
My first and most cited paper “Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer, 1950-1968” Business History Review 75 (Spring 2001): 15-61 profiled the "systems men." These staff managerial specialists administrative techniques introduced modern concepts of information and information systems into corporate discourse, redesignating the computer as a tool for management information to bolster their own status. (full text locally)
"The Chromium-Plated Tabulator: Institutionalizing an Electronic Revolution, 1954-1958", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 23 (October-December 2001): 75-104 told the story of the first four years of administrative computing in the USA. It was the first in-depth study of how early administrative computers were brought and sold, what they were used for, and the new kinds of jobs that emerged around them. I revelaed the extent to which the use of computers was shaped by the earlier technologies of punched card machines, and drew attention to the importance of the data processing department as a new corporate institution. (full text locally)
“Software in the 1960s as Concept, Service, and Product", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 24:1 (January-March 2002). Today was use "software" as a synonym for "program," but the concept has a separate and newer origin. Here I surveyed the origins and early ambiguities of the term, explored the origins of packaged application programs and related early software package adoption to the concerns of data processing managers. Here it is as published
"Remembering the Office of the Future: Word Processing and Office Automation before the Personal Computer," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 28:4 (October-December 2006):6-31. An overview of the technical, business, and labor history of word processing during the 1960s and 1970s. This was the first sustained historical examination of this important technology. Read it online.
I wrote two chapters for the 2008 MIT Press book "The Internet and American Business" edited by William Aspray and Paul Ceruzzi. "Protocols for Profit: Web and Email Technologies as Product and Infrastructure"tells the business and technological history of development of Internet web browsing and email/messaging systems, focusing on the ways in which the design features built into pre-commercial Internet technologies during the 1980s influenced directions taken by the commercial Internet of the 1990s. Read a preprint version here."The Web's Missing Links: The Search Engine & Portal Industry" does a similar job for the web navigation industry. Read a preprint version here
"How Data Got Its Base: Information Storage Software in the 1950s and 1960s" builds on some earlier papers to argue that the introduction around 1970 of the database managemetn system as a new and vital kind of software package rested on earlier user-driven collaborative projects in the area particularly the generalized file maintenance and reporting systems of the 1950s. (Online here)
"The History of Information Technology," Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 45 (2011): 431-487.ARIST was one of the premier publication venues in information science, home to long review essays exploring the literature and key ideas in broad areas of research. Read a preprint version online.
In the scholarly literature on the history of software, no idea looms larger than the "software crisis" of the late 1960s and no event has been more discussed than the NATO Conference on Software Engineering held in 1968. Yet I've always been surprised by how little they feature in the primary literature for most computing communities in the 1960s and 1970s. "Dijkstra's Crisis: The End of Algol and the Beginning of Software Engineering:1968-1972" is a draft written as part of the Software for Europe research proeject, but its edited volume met a sad fate. The chapter is too long for a conventional journal article, so my current plan is to save the material for a future book on the history of software. (Read the latest version online here).
In one of my columns for Communications of the ACM, "Seven Lessons from Bad History: Journalists, Historians, and the Invention of Email" I stepped back from the twists and turns of the "Inventor of Email" affair to see what it tells us about the place of high technology history in the Internet age. Read it here. (For my detailed evaluation of the case, see this page at SIGCIS).