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Director’s Desk

I began these columns in Fall 2007, roughly a year after I arrived at the University of Minnesota in 2006.  The interval in the CBI Newsletter was largely devoted to a celebration of Arthur Norberg’s retirement as director of the Charles Babbage Institute and my accommodation to the new post.  Since then it’s been an exciting and engaging eleven years.  It’s been a tremendous honor and genuine privilege to lead CBI.  This is my last “Director’s Desk” since I’ll be stepping down at the end of June, the usual and customary timing for University of Minnesota administrative appointments.

Later in this piece I’ll make some observations about the directions CBI is going, but first I’d like a chance to reflect on where CBI has been.  We’re historians, after all.

I’d dreamed of having a second crack at the “golden age” of CBI that existed in the years following its move to the University of Minnesota in 1980.  Then, the founding trio of Arthur Norberg, Bill Aspray, and Bruce Bruemmer had the heady experience “of passionate and energetic intellectual work while we labored to create a new academic discipline,” in Aspray’s words.  I think we’ve done our part.  In the CBI Newsletter containing the inaugural “Director’s Desk” there were articles on launching the NSF–FastLane project, Jeff Yost becoming Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, inaugurating the Arthur Norberg Travel Fund, and expanding CBI’s international profile.  And that was just the Fall of 2007! 

No one imagined that for the FastLane project we’d do an immense set of oral histories, far beyond expectation: 643 are in a publicly accessible dataset, out of the total of 800 interviews we did for the five-year project as a whole.  When I asked Katie Charlet, who took charge of the herculean task of editing, processing, and posting them—well, how many pages does the set of FastLane transcripts total, her reply was firm but polite: I’m not counting; don't ask.  So, instead, we measured the transcripts, filling three oversize file cabinet drawers, at six linear feet.  Based on this unique dataset, Jeff Yost and I co-authored FastLane: Managing Science in the Internet World (Johns Hopkins University, 2015).  What is more, with the FastLane project we honed a new model of structured interview questions that proved helpful for the recently completed Sloan Foundation project on women in the computing industry.

Jeff Yost’s editorship of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing also set new benchmarks.  In his four-year term, Jeff published more scholarly articles than ever before, making Annals a highly respected scholarly journal in the history of computing.  Jeff has gone on to lead the IEEE Computer Society’s History Committee, creating greater awareness within the IEEE CS of its rich history as well as initiating an oral history project to interview the society’s past presidents.  For our subsequent multi-year NSF project, on the history of computer security, with Jeff’s insight and initiative we published two special issues of Annals on computer security.

And with the Arthur Norberg Travel Fund, we began an initiative that has supported 31 splendid research projects that mined CBI’s unparalleled archival, print, and image resources.  This fund was imagined by Arthur’s University of Minnesota colleague Sally Kohlstedt to honor his leadership of CBI and to expand research in the field on the base of CBI resources.  Researchers respond warmly.  “My gratitude to the Charles Babbage Institute . . . is enormous. The Arthur Norberg grant . . . allowed me to spend two extraordinary weeks in the archives of the Babbage Institute . . . That experience in the archives remains one of the highlights of my academic life,” wrote one Ph.D. student in her dissertation’s preface.  We’ve been fortunate in the great enthusiasm that CBI Friends have shown in helping us build up the Norberg fund.  If you’d like to join these donors to the Norberg Fund, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

It’s difficult to untangle CBI research projects, CBI oral histories, and CBI archival collections.  Indeed these are three legs of the infrastructure for computer history that CBI has been building for decades.  For the NSF-funded computer security project, we completed 31 oral histories with pioneers in the field.  As a result of an oral history, we often find collecting opportunities for archival materials.  Prior to the NSF funded research project, CBI had three computer-security collections, including papers from Willis Ware, David Cavanagh, and Donn Parker; now we have additional collections from Steven Lipner, Lance Hoffman, Terry Benzel, Thomas Bailey, Rick Smith, Dick Kain, and Stephen Lukasik.

And speaking of archives . . . soon enough came the “Nelsen Tsunami,” which crested in two successive waves during Arvid Nelsen’s tenure as CBI archivist beginning in spring 2007.  I gave some highlights in the Spring 2016 Newsletter.  As a rare books specialist, Arvid gave special attention to CBI’s print materials.  These expanded during his tenure by a factor of five, from roughly 2,000 to 10,000 volumes.  Even better, the books are fully visible in the University Libraries online catalogue.  I used it just last week.  I’ve been collecting some oddball volumes and wanted to donate them to CBI.  Who knew that Cecil Hastings’s Approximations for Digital Computers (Princeton 1955) was already at CBI in the Cortada collection?  Or that Ross Ashby’s Introduction to Cybernetics (London 1964) was already in the Mahoney collection?  At least I’ll donate a singular copy of Ed Yourdon’s Silent Witness: A Novel of Computer Crime (1982).

Arvid’s accomplishments in traditional archiving were equally impressive.  He added no less than 192 archival collections that total 1,640 cubic feet.  This measure is around one-third of the entire CBI archival collection that existed in 2006.  There are many impressive gems, including the records from Gartner Group, Lockheed Martin, Association for Computing Machinery, and the Carl Machover Papers, among many others.  He also started the “Social Issues in Computing” print collection described in the Newsletter.  Arvid capitalized on the work done by founding CBI archivist Bruce Bruemmer and his successors Elisabeth Kaplan, Carrie Seib, Karen Spilman, and Stephanie Crowe; and we are excited that Amanda Wick is continuing the tradition with active collecting and imaginative outreach.  She is energetically following up with archival collections documenting motion-picture graphics, including company records from Alias | Wavefront direct from co-founder Mark Sylvester (120 cubic feet) and papers from long-time Los Angeles ACM SIGGRAPH leader Joan Collins and collector Russell Hobbie.

I’m especially proud of CBI’s research output.  In the past dozen years CBI staff have published a dozen books, three special issues of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, and more than 20 articles and chapters.  In addition to this, Jeff Yost helped revise the widely used textbook in history of computing, Computer: A History of the Information Machine (Westview Press, third edition, 2014) and I published a revised second edition of Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present (Johns Hopkins University Press 2011).  My book Digital State: The Story of Minnesota's Computing Industry (University of Minnesota Press 2013) is based on CBI oral histories, photographs, and archival collections.  In the past year ACM Books published my edited volume, Communities of Computing: Computer Science and Society in the ACM (2016), which draws extensively on CBI research supported by the Norberg Travel Fund as well as the ACM History Committee.  And, at this very moment, Jeff Yost is correcting page proofs for Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry (MIT Press 2017), based on his deep archival research that profiles the origins and six-decade evolution of today’s $1 trillion computer-services industry.

History of computing is one of the liveliest fields around, with exciting new work and expanding audiences.  CBI’s future is in excellent hands, and it will go from strength to strength.  I’ll be returning to a regular faculty position in the university’s History of Science and Technology Program.  We have excellent support from the University of Minnesota, embedded in the University Libraries, the History of Science and Technology Program, and the College of Science and Engineering.  Beginning this summer, you can find (as always) Katie Charlet attentively keeping CBI operating smoothly and managing our projects, Jeff Yost energetically doing research and writing and running the center, and Amanda Wick capably holding down the archival fort.

Thomas J. Misa

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