As a historian I am committed to understanding how history is made, often through the give-and-take interactions of strong structural forces such as globalization or the digital revolution with individual human beings struggling to get a computer program to run or a printer jam cleared. But as director of the Charles Babbage Institute, I am reminded daily of how humans literally make history—donating valuable records, conducting oral histories to pin down critical turning points, traveling to an archive far away (or doing research right at hand), experiencing the thrill of an unanticipated nugget of historical insight in the umpteenth box of letters at the end of a long day. So here are some vignettes from CBI.
CBI archivist Arvid Nelsen was, as many of you know, away from CBI for three months this spring. The University Libraries granted him a research leave, and he invested time tracking down the amazing people behind pioneering efforts to bring computing skills and access to African American communities in California from the 1960s to today. He was privileged to talk with several founders of local computer-literacy efforts in East Palo Alto, Oakland, and the area surrounding much-fabled Silicon Valley. He is doing research for a book drawing on their experiences and, like the excellent professional archivist he is, also mindful of archiving the relevant records so that these experiences can be better understood and also might serve as inspiration for similar education efforts today and tomorrow.
In Arvid’s absence, we had the excellent assistance of Rebecca Hranj. She had the time of her life unpacking a just-received archival collection from Mark Sylvester documenting Wavefront Technologies and Alias|Wavefront. Wavefront was founded in 1984 by Sylvester, along with Bill Kovacs and Larry Barels, to develop graphics technologies for television and movies. Among their early clients were Universal Studios, Electronic Arts, and NASA. Wavefront’s techniques appear in numerous major films, such as the James Cameron–Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster True Lies (1994), among many others, and earned the company two Oscars. Rebecca assembled choice Wavefront artifacts for an exhibit outside the CBI office suite in Andersen Library.
This February Jeff Yost and I put the final touches necessary to send our book on the National Science Foundation’s FastLane computer system into production at Johns Hopkins University Press. FastLane: Managing Science in the Internet World is our title. Among other thanks, we salute the 800+ people who granted us interviews that documented their varied perspectives on this notable e-government effort. Jeff is pounding away at the keyboard, hard at work on his computer services book for MIT Press. He’s now on chapter four, making excellent progress and looking forward to delving into our ADAPSO records.
Katie Charlet keeps the 101 moving pieces of CBI well organized. In addition to assisting visiting Norberg Travel Grant recipients and other researchers, she is also handling the necessary visa paperwork so that we can welcome Janet Toland from New Zealand as a visiting researcher at CBI later this summer. The University of Minnesota shut down its central computer system for ten days in April, and Katie was our guru in navigating the multifarious challenges before and after the upgrade. Katie also lends her organizational, editing, and layout skills to bring together this newsletter.
Three Ph.D. students are currently in residence at CBI. Jonathan Clemens is writing the core chapters of his dissertation, which treats the history of video arcade games and is based on archival records from Atari and several principals including Al Alcorn. Nic Lewis continues work on the CBI–Los Alamos high-performance computing project, with several articles in the pipeline and a summer’s worth of research in the mountains of New Mexico on the docket. For the CBI–Sloan Foundation project investigating women in the early computing industry (1965-85), Will Vogel is examining archival records from Control Data and Burroughs and assessing the advertising and editorial stances of Datamation and Computerworld.
As for me, I too am keeping myself out of trouble. In March I organized and submitted two scholarly sessions for the upcoming fall SHOT conference in Albuquerque. At SHOT and SIGCIS we are planning sessions showcasing research supported by the ACM’s History Committee. Last week I sent an article off to Communications of the ACM. Yesterday I saw the reviews that will shape the final revisions for Bernadette Longo’s biography of Edmund Berkeley, forthcoming this year from ACM Books. Today I secured college-level approval for a new course “Digital World” that will be first offered in Spring 2016. Tomorrow I have lunch with Bob Price and a chance to discuss a possible Control Data company history project. And of course there are sundry meetings that offer diversion.
If you are in the Twin Cities, please drop us a line. We’d love to show you around the CBI office suite and, as time permits, sneak downstairs to see what new treasures Arvid has added to CBI’s archive. And have a look at our roster of archival collections. You, too, can call up some boxes of your choice and have a go at making history yourself.
Thomas J. Misa