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Historians of computing

Who are the historians of the computing? The requirement I used for deciding who qualifies (for this post), is that the person has written multiple papers on the subject over a period that is much longer than their PhD thesis (several people have written history of some aspect of computing PhDs and then gone on to research other areas).

Maarten Bullynck. An academic who is a historian of mathematics and has become interested in software; use HAL to find his papers, e.g., What is an Operating System? A historical investigation (1954–1964).

Martin Campbell-Kelly. An academic who has spent his research career investigating computing history, primarily with a software orientation. Has written extensively on a wide variety of software topics. His book “From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry” is still on my pile of books waiting to be read (but other historian cite it extensively). His thesis: “Foundations of computer programming in Britain, 1945-55″, can be freely downloadable from the British Library; registration required.

James W. Cortada. Ex-IBM (1974-2012) and now working at the Charles Babbage Institute. Written extensively on the history of computing. More of a hardware than software orientation. Written lots of detail oriented books and must have pole position for most extensive collection of material to cite (his end notes are very extensive). His “Buy The Digital Flood: The Diffusion of Information Technology Across the U.S., Europe, and Asia” is likely to be the definitive work on the subject for some time to come. For me this book is spoiled by the author towing the company line in his analysis of the IBM antitrust trial; my analysis of the work Cortada cites reaches the opposite conclusion.

Nathan Ensmenger. An academic; more of a people person than hardware/software. His paper Letting the Computer Boys Take Over contains many interesting insights. His book The Computer Boys Take Over Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise is a combination of topics that have been figured and back with references and topics still being figured out (I wish he would not cite Datamation, a trade mag back in the day, so often).

Kenneth S. Flamm. An academic and has held senior roles in government. Writes from a industry evolution, government interests, economic perspective. The books: “Targeting the Computer: Government Support and International Competition” and “Creating the Computer: Government, Industry and High Technology” are packed with industry related economic data and covers all the major industrial countries.

Michael S. Mahoney. An academic who is sadly no longer with us. A historian of mathematics before becoming involved with primarily software.

Jeffrey R. Yost. An academic. I have only read his book “Making IT Work: A history of the computer services industry”, which was really a collection of vignettes about people, companies and events; needs some analysis. Must try to track down some of his papers (which are not available via his web page :-(.

Who have I missed? This list is derived from papers/books I have encountered while working on a book, not an active search for historians. Suggestions welcome.


Completely forgot Kenneth S. Flamm, despite enjoying both his computer books.

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  1. March 14th, 2018 at 19:01 | #1

    Derek, I was wondering if Paul N Edwards would apply. He wrote a couple of great books including A Vast Machine and The Closed World where he analyses the use of computing resources for meteorology and military uses using a Socio Technical System perspective.
    Another one I liked was Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries which covers the Cybersyn project under Pinochet. These are rather “big box” systems books but great history wise.

  2. March 14th, 2018 at 20:07 | #2

    @Jean Paul de Vooght
    Thanks for the suggestions. Edwards’ “The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America” is on my list of second hand books to buy when the price gets low enough (I buy lots for a pound or two and most end up donated to the local charity shop).

    Edwards and Medina write about the impact of computers in specific areas, e.g., government and climate. The impact of computers is important, but I am limiting myself to the computer business itself.

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