Smarter Than Their Machines
Charles Babbage Institute

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John Cullinane’s CBI Book:

Smarter than Their Machines (2014)

smarter than their machinesJohn Cullinane came to us last spring with a great and urgent question.  “You have these amazing oral histories,” he told us, “and you simply must get them out to the world!”  It happened that back in 2003 John had been interviewed by CBI associate director Jeffrey Yost as part of CBI’s NSF-funded project on the history of software.  John was the founder in 1968 of Cullinane Corporation, one of the earliest and most successful software products companies.  He clearly had an important story to tell.

John floated the idea of publishing a book from the CBI oral histories, and Jeff made the suggestion of adding John’s voice and perspective as an integral part.  John went to work looking up the people that he’d worked with and, sometimes, worked for in the CBI interviews.  He also crafted introductions and commentaries that connected his personal story with the interviews.

The CBI interviewees that had direct connections to John’s history formed quite a list.  Early on, John went to work for C-E-I-R, Inc., the prototype computer services company founded by Herbert Robinson.  John was a “hockey dad” at ringside with famed computer designer Richard Bloch, the pioneering computer programmer with the Harvard Mark I.  Bloch’s computers were among those that Sam Wyly sold as a rising Honeywell salesman, while Gene Amdahl’s computers for IBM were also sold by Wyly; and it happened that Wyly succeeded massively in the computer-services sector where Robinson had struggled. 

Interactive computing was a mainstay of Cullinane Corporation, which used data networks and databases to create and deliver software products.  So there are intriguing selections from the ARPANET and Internet pioneers: J.C.R. Licklider, Ivan Sutherland, Larry Roberts, and Bob Kahn.  The transformation of computing at MIT is a focus of Marvin Minsky and Michael Dertouzos, and Joseph Traub describes the creation of Carnegie Mellon’s notable computer-science department.  Jeff’s interview with John rounds out the volume.

We hatched a plan for publishing the book.  John finalized the text, photos, and captions in September 2014.  We’d arranged a contract with the newly launched series at ACM Books.  The fine editorial and production staff at publishers Morgan & Claypool went to work, and we had the book by November, well in time for Christmas.  ACM Books is a new venture, publishing a wide variety of computer science volumes — including history of computing.  John’s book contains extracts from the CBI oral histories, and the e-book version contains direct links to the complete oral histories on the University of Minnesota server.  It is simply unheard-of to have a 2.5 month book production cycle.

You can find John’s book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in the ACM’s Digital Library and by DOI.  For that matter, since we sent thank you copies to each of our CBI Friends, you can join the CBI Friends today and we’ll send you John’s book tomorrow!

John gave an hour-long seminar at Harvard University earlier this spring, and a pod cast is here <>  “Are we still smarter than our machines?” he was asked by an audience member.  Judging from the up-swelling of computer savvy by young people, he noted, the answer remains a resounding ‘yes’.

Thomas J. Misa


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