[SIGCIS-Members] Donald Knuth

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Wed May 14 09:19:49 PDT 2014

Hmm. I can't find an online video for it anywhere, which is an increasingly
common practice for invited talks. We might try to get Knuth to write up the
talk for Annals if he wants to make his case to the history of computing


Here is the abstract:


Talk Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science

Abstract  For many years the history of computer science was presented in a
way that was useful to computer scientists. But nowadays almost all
technical content is excised; historians are concentrating rather on issues
like how computer scientists have been able to get funding for their
projects, and/or how much their work has influenced Wall Street. We no
longer are told what ideas were actually discovered, nor how they were
discovered, nor why they are great ideas. We only get a scorecard.


Similar trends are occurring with respect to other sciences. Historians
generally no prefer "external history" to "internal history", so that they
can write stories that appeal to readers with almost no expertise.


Historians of mathematics have thankfully been resisting such temptations.
In this talk the speaker will explain why he is so grateful for the
continued excellence of papers on mathematical history, and he will make a
plea for historians of computer science to get back on track.  


Annals liked to feature a quote from Knuth in its promotional materials, and
of course he was involved in documenting the very early history of systems
software back at the Los Alamos conference in 1976. So I suspect he is
unhappy with the demographic transition that has taken place in the history
of computing from eminent computer pioneers to younger, Ph.D. historians as
the most active producers of historical work. This has naturally been
accompanied with a shift in methods, questions, framing, etc. from an
internalist approach centered on questions of interest to computer
scientists to an externalist approach centered on questions of interest to
one or another tribe of Ph.D. historians.


It's natural for Knuth to regret this, but it's not clear to me that this is
a zero sum game. His abstract reads as if there is a fixed pool of
historians whose attention has unfortunately been diverted from substance to
fluff.  It seems that the first generation of digital computing pioneers had
an interest in technical history, stoked in part by the legacy of the ENIAC
patent wars. Wilkes, Eckert, Mauchly, Zuse, Goldstine, Metropolis, the IBM
team of Bashe, Pugh, et al, Malinovsky, Burks, Randell, Ware, Sammet, the
LEO team, and many of their peers are/were active produces and consumers of
technically and/or institutionally oriented history.  All had begun to work
in computing by 1957, which seems to be about when Knuth himself first
programmed. While many more people entered computing after 1957 than before
it seems that subsequent cohorts have been much less likely to develop an
interest in history. There are exceptions of course. Dave Walden, for
example, is one of the most active members of the Annals board. Several ACM
SIGs launched historical projects, following the three successful history
events on the History of Programming Languages organized by SIGPLAN over the
decades. ACM and IEEE CS both have history committees. Articles are written
to celebrate the anniversaries of departments, technologies, etc. Just today
we heard on this list of a project on the history of BSD. But overall it
seems that the relative eclipse of technical, internal history of computer
science and technology has a lot to do with a loss of interest in history
among the people best equipped to write it. Neither have computer science
departments embraced the history of computer science as an important area of
teaching or research. As far as I know, no computer science program in the
US has ever hired a faculty member specifically as a historian of computing
- which is different from the history of law, medicine, communications, and
to some extent business where the disciplines in question have sometimes
deliberately hired faculty members to teach and research history. Instead
history has been an interest people have developed late in their careers, if
at all.


Knuth probably appreciates the efforts of De Mol, Bullynck, and their
colleagues to establish the Commission for the History and Philosophy of
Computing and the associated series of events over the past few years. This
reflects an engagement with the history of mathematics, which as Knuth notes
maintained a more traditional approach to the history of science. So it
seems that there is scope for many historical traditions to thrive side by


My other point is that "the history of computer science" is a problematic
category in this respect. Much technical history of computing is on the
1940s and early 1950s, before the emergence of computer science. The bulk of
recent effort has been on Turing. Even my current work with Priestley & Rope
on the history of ENIAC, which goes deep into technical analysis of early
code, architecture, flow diagramming techniques, concepts, etc. is really
about the history of computing practice and computing technology rather than
the history of computer science. Furthermore relatively little externalist
work on the history of computing is about computer science. Mahoney wrote
about computer science, and there has been recent work on the history of
Algol from the efforts of the SOFT-EU project, history of software
engineering, and history of formal methods. Also coverage of the history of
ARPA funding in the books by Norberg & O'Neill and Abbate, and a couple of
articles on NSF support for computer science by Aspray. That's a rather
small proportion of everything written on the history of computing over the
past twenty years. So in as much as the history of computer science is
written at all, which is not nearly as much as it should be, the dominant
approach is still internalist and technical.


This might be an interesting topic for one of my "Historical Reflections"
columns in Communications of the ACM. So if you send your thoughts to the
list these could help to shape it. 


Best wishes,




-----Original Message-----
From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
Behalf Of Ceruzzi, Paul
Sent: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 9:18 AM
To: 'members at sigcis.org'
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Donald Knuth




I heard that Donald Knuth gave a Kailath Lecture at Stanford last week on
"Let's not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science." Did any of you attend
this lecture? Is there a transcript available? I've seen the abstract and it
appears to be of great relevance.




Paul E. Ceruzzi, Chairman

Division of Space History, MRC 311

National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012




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