In this column I often reflect on the state of the art in computing history. In the past, I’ve pointed to quantitative evidence suggesting impressive growth and expansion in our field. After the 2012 annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in Copenhagen, I reported that more than 50 computing history papers were presented at the SIGCIS workshop or during the main SHOT program itself — with 50 people attending the SIGCIS lunch meeting and 60 people at the day-long SIGCIS Sunday workshop. The numbers were also impressive for the subsequent SHOT meetings in Portland, Maine, and Dearborn, Michigan. As our report on this year’s SHOT conference and SIGCIS workshop in Albuquerque makes clear, this quantitative growth continues apace. CBI associate director Jeffrey Yost and I have a friendly wager pending about when SHOT will become fully fifty percent computing history.
With this column I want to stress a slightly different theme: the qualitative evidence that computing history is maturing in depth and sophistication. It certainly makes a difference if 50 or 100 computer historians attend the SIGCIS workshop, but equally vital is the quality of their work and the recognition it gains in the wider world. Here, too, the evidence is pretty impressive. Let me give you some highlights.1
We always take pride in the stellar accomplishments of the CBI–Tomash fellows. The leading figures in computing history are a roster of Tomash fellows, including former SIGCIS chair Tom Haigh and present SIGCIS chair Andy Russell; editor-in-chief of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing Nathan Ensmenger; and prize-winning authors Janet Abbate, Atsushi Akera, Christophe Lécuyer, and Eden Medina. This year’s CBI–Tomash fellow Gerardo Con Diaz (Yale University) continues with a notable streak of awards and accolades, including fellowships also from the IEEE History Center, the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, and the Business History Conference’s Rovensky Prize — all for work on his dissertation “Intangible Inventions: A History of Software Patenting in the United States, 1945-1985.” What is more, his article on software copyright was awarded this year’s SHOT Levinson Prize and will be published in Technology and Culture.
A paper in computing history was the recipient of this year’s highly competitive Robinson prize, awarded to the best-presented paper at the annual SHOT conference. From 18 contenders for this prize, Sarah McLennan (College of William and Mary) won for her presentation of “Computing and the Color Line: Race, Gender, and Opportunity in Early Computing at NASA.” Two pertinent observations are that Sarah represents the wider community of historians who are discovering the importance of computing history, and that her session was jointly sponsored by SIGCIS and EDITH, a new group within SHOT focusing on diversity issues.
Closer to home, I am proud of the work that graduate student Nic Lewis has been doing on the Los Alamos High-Performance Computing History project. As we reported in the Fall 2014 newsletter, Nic spent last summer (and this summer as well) in residence at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). He is taking important steps to define and develop a dissertation project. Last spring he passed his preliminary (qualifying) examinations and this month he successfully defended his dissertation prospectus: “From Stretch to the Cray-1: Lab and Vendor Interaction in the Shaping of Supercomputing at Los Alamos.” At SIGCIS this year he presented a well-received paper based on his unique access to LANL archival materials as well as oral histories with participants, “Increasing the Yield: Nuclear Testing, Weapons Strategy, and Supercomputer Selection at Los Alamos in the 1960s.” With a poster on this same topic he won a best-poster award at the LANL student symposium in early August.
Deep contributions, notable awards, and increasing visibility: not only is computing history expanding outward in scale and size; it is also becoming more sophisticated and gaining accolades in the wider historical and technical communities. For 35 years, contributions to the CBI Friends have kept CBI at the forefront of computing history, advancing the field with archival collections, oral histories, research projects, and field-shaping publications. We invite you to make a contribution today to maintain the health and vitality of computing history.
Thomas J. Misa
1 For additional reflection on the field’s evolution and maturation, see James W. Cortada, “Studying History as it Unfolds, Part 1: Creating the History of Information Technologies,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 37 no. 3 (2015): 20-31.