Books and shows about the history of information technology have usually focused on great inventors and technical breakthroughs, from Charles Babbage and Alan Turing to Steve Jobs and the World Wide Web. Computer operations work has been written out of the story, but without it no computer would be useful. Information historians Thomas Haigh and Mark Priestley are writing it back in. This talk focused on ENIAC, the first general purpose electronic computer, based on research for their book ENIAC in Action: Making and Remaking the Modern Computer, published by MIT Press in January, 2016. They will explain that the women now celebrated as the “first computer programmers” were actually hired as computer operators and worked hands-on with the machine around the clock. Then they will look at business data processing work from the 1950s onward, exploring the growth of operations and facilities work during the mainframe era. Concluding comments will relate this historical material to the human work and physical infrastructure today vanishing from public view into the “cloud.”
See below for a Storify recap of this Digital Dialogue, including links to resources and projects that Haigh and Priestley referenced during their talk.
Thomas Haigh received his Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania after earning two degrees in Computer Science from the University of Manchester. Haigh has published on many aspects of the history of computing including the evolution of data base management systems, word processing, the software package concept, corporate computer departments, Internet software, computing in science fiction, computer architecture, and the gendered division of work in data processing. As well as ENIAC in Action (MIT, 2016) he edited Histories of Computing (Harvard, 2011), a collection of the work of Michael S. Mahoney. He write the “Historical Reflections” column for Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). His new projects are an reexamination of the wartime Colossus codebreaking machine and a book, Acolytes of Information, on the history of information systems work in the American corporation. Learn more at his website.
Mark Priestley is an independent researcher into the history and philosophy of computing, based in London. He studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Oxford, and started his career as a programmer before working for many years as a lecturer in software engineering at the University of Westminster. He then turned to the history of computing, gaining a PhD in science and technology studies from University College London. His previous book, A Science of Operations: Machines, Logic, and the Invention of Programming (Springer, 2011), explores the influence of logical ideas on the evolution of programming methods. Following on from ENIAC in Action (MIT 2016), he is working on recapturing the details of early programming ideas and practices in other contexts. More information is available at his website.