Agile Developments



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Agile Developments

From its origin nearly four decades ago, the Charles Babbage Institute has always been a center with a small dedicated staff focused on building key infrastructure to have a large impact on the IT history field.  We do this through the synergistic activities of sponsored research, publishing scholarship, conducting and publishing oral histories, and expanding the institute’s world class archives.  Our small team interacts frequently, and we network continuously with our national and international stakeholders.  Working in unison at CBI, and with the IT and IT history communities worldwide, we agilely create and respond to impactful opportunities.  

Over the past 11 years I have had the pleasure of working closely with former CBI director Thomas Misa.  Tom has been a wonderful colleague, and has provided tremendous leadership for the institute.  This span has been a highly productive time on the archives and research fronts for CBI. With past archivists (Arvid Nelsen and Stephanie Crowe) and current CBI archivist and curator Amanda Wick, we have brought in many dozens of important archival collections, strengthening our unparalleled materials in graphics, professional associations, trade associations, corporate records, computer security, and many other areas.  We have also added greatly to our impressive collection of more than 10,000 books.  With regard to research, Tom and I have published ten books—five apiece including one together—over the past dozen years. We have led multiple sponsored research projects (for the National Science Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and others), edited journal special issues, and written many articles.  At CBI, archives and research work together, continuously spawning important research and collection development opportunities, all in a virtuous cycle.

In July, Tom followed through on his long established plans to rotate (out of CBI) to teach full time in the University of Minnesota’s Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (HSTM). He is also vice president and incoming president of the Society for the History of Technology—we congratulate Tom on this terrific honor and leadership responsibility!  I have been charged with leading the institute.  CBI, a partnership of the College of Science and Engineering and the University Libraries from its start, has always had deep connections to the highly distinguished HSTM Program.  Tom, as with past directors, has been on the regular teaching faculty of HSTM (with a half-time assignment) since his arrival at the University of Minnesota, and I have long served on the faculty as well.  I am pleased to announce this important relationship has recently been further strengthened as CBI (on the research side) now reports within HSTM. 

And what are some examples of agile developments? As of late, we have acquired an incredible addition to our archives. CBI’s Amanda Wick has recently secured the donation of a software history collection of unparalleled importance, the Jean Sammet Papers.  It complements our already very substantial and diverse software archives holdings (especially the ACM Organizational Records) and is a collection that rivals our largest (Burroughs Corporation and Control Data Corporation records) in size and significance.  Jean Sammet was a central leader in the programming language field for many years.  In the early 1950s, she was an employee of Metropolitan Life, where as an actuary she learned punched card tabulation.  She left Metropolitan to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics at Columbia University, but longed to be back in a corporate setting and left to work for Sperry Gyroscope, followed by Sylvania, and by the early 1960s, IBM.  During this span she was a key member of the team developing and refining the business-focused programming language COBOL.  With this important experience behind her, just after arriving at IBM, she led a team in the development of FORmula MAnipulation Compliler (FORMAC), and rose to become a senior manager in software for IBM’s Federal Systems Division, and later IBM’s top manager for Programming Language Technology and an IBM Fellow.  During her tenure at IBM she was also a key leader in programming languages work for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), becoming chair of the ACM’s Special Interest Group on Programming Languages (SIGPLAN) in 1971.  She followed this important assignment up with becoming vice-president and then president of ACM (1972-1974 and 1974-1976, respectively).

David Nye, CBI Senior Research Fellow
David Nye

And with regard to recent developments with research, we are thrilled to announce that one of the world’s leading historians of technology David Nye has joined CBI as a senior research fellow.  David soon will become emeritus at the University of Southern Denmark and plans to visit CBI several times a year for month-long stays (and will be conducting some research in IT history).  He spent much of this past October at the institute.  A past recipient of the Society for the History of Technology’s Dexter Prize (now Edelstein, for best book) and the society’s highest honor, the career achievement Da Vinci Medal award, David has published more than a dozen path-breaking books. Collectively, they span many areas of the social and cultural history of technology, from electrification, assembly lines, and image worlds to historiography and the technological sublime.  He just published the co-written book (with Robert S. Emmett), The Environmental Humanities: A Critical Introduction (MIT Press, 2017).

David’s book came out in early October, almost simultaneously with my Making IT Work: A History of the Computer Services Industry.  Computer services, by far IT’s largest industry at over a trillion dollars in revenue annually (more than double the size of the computer industry or the software products industry), through its many segments, countless companies, and contractors, has been a critical engine to making computers useful to organizations from the early-to-mid 1950s forward and to employing many millions of people—in both senses, making IT work. I am grateful to CBI senior research fellow Jim Cortada for his brief write up on the book in this issue.  If you have not yet made an annual donation to CBI, I ask that you please do so.  Donations to CBI help us serve our community of researchers, and the many people around the world who are touched by their work.  For all donors at the CBI Friends level ($100) or higher, we would be delighted to send you a complimentary copy of Making IT Work.

Also I am currently writing a book on the history of computer security, “From Time-sharing to the Cloud: A History of Computer Security,” under contract for MIT Press.  Computer security has been an important area for us over the past half-decade, as we have recently completed a highly successful 4 year NSF project—which included adding many important new collections to the archives, conducting and publishing more than 30 oral histories, and guest editing two special issues of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.  The download numbers for articles in these special issues are high (over 500 for nearly all of the articles on the IEEE Xplore platform alone, and a bunch of additional ones on Project MUSE), and we have many oral histories with computer security pioneers with over 600 downloads, including some with over 1,000, and one with over 10,000 (Martin E. Hellman).  Such numbers are indicative of something we have long known, that our oral histories are used not only by historians, but also in computer science classrooms.

CBI has continued the tradition of hosting visiting international scholars. We were delighted that Kansai University Professor Mai Sugimoto was with us this past academic year as a visiting scholar.  Our competitive Norberg Travel Grant program continues to help facilitate the travel of a talented group of scholars from different disciplines, geographies, and educational and career stages.  And with the Tomash Fellowship, we are thrilled to be sponsoring fellow Ekaterina Babintseva, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania for her important research on computer education in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

While our research, collecting scope, and service are and always have been worldwide in scope, we are also quite interested in computing history nearer to home. With inspiration in part from Tom Misa’s impressive book Digital State: The Story of Minnesota’s Computer Industry (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), a group of industry pioneers, the Minnesota High Technology Association, the Dakota County Historical Society, and CBI joined together for a public history project on Minnesota’s computer history.  This one-year sponsored research project (funded by the Minnesota Historical Society) will yield a major public history website and dozens of video interviews.  The interviews are to be a core foundation for a follow-on project to create an hour-long documentary on Minnesota’s computer history for public television. With both the public history website and the documentary, the goal is to explore not just the industry (ERA, Sperry-Univac, Control Data, Cray, Honeywell, IBM Rochester, Lawson Software, etc.), but also topics and themes such as uses and users (in education and other areas), labor, and gender. Amanda and I are the leads for CBI (serving as advisors), and key project staff include a postdoc (from HSTM) Jonathan Clemens and HSTM doctoral candidate Elizabeth Semler.

In short, there are many agile developments recently completed or underway at CBI as we work tirelessly to advance the infrastructure and possibilities for IT history!

Jeffrey R. Yost

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