[SIGCIS-Members] Members Digest, Vol 47, Issue 11

Dag Spicer dspicer at computerhistory.org
Thu May 15 12:51:26 PDT 2014

One of the serious issues Don hinted at was an insight from the sociology of science: there is no academic reward mechanism for people in technical fields to be writing histories.  Quite the opposite in fact.  I think it was Robert Merton who noted that histories written by technical people are often greeted with suspicion by fellow practitioners as something that is not to be done during one’s academic career, which is nominally about creating new knowledge, rather than reviewing the past.  Typically, such synoptic disciplinary histories that *are* written are by people who are Emeritus, a point at which they have nothing to fear academically.

So I wouldn’t bother trying to “change Don.”  He’s merely pointing out the way things are in the Academy.

Dag Spicer
Senior Curator
Computer History Museum
Editorial Board, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
1401 North Shoreline Boulevard
Mountain View, CA 94043-1311

Tel: +1 650 810 1035
Fax: +1 650 810 1055

On May 15, 2014, at 10:40 AM, members-request at sigcis.org<mailto:members-request at sigcis.org> wrote:

Send Members mailing list submissions to
members at sigcis.org<mailto:members at sigcis.org>

To subscribe or unsubscribe via the World Wide Web, visit
or, via email, send a message with subject or body 'help' to
members-request at sigcis.org

You can reach the person managing the list at
members-owner at sigcis.org

When replying, please edit your Subject line so it is more specific
than "Re: Contents of Members digest..."

Today's Topics:

  1. Re: Donald Knuth (William McMillan)


Message: 1
Date: Thu, 15 May 2014 13:39:52 -0400
From: William McMillan <wmcmillan at emich.edu>
To: sigcis <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Donald Knuth
<CAHwTMcnhK7mt-nJk-8jF8bu8E6iD+GyjAgdT=mymqz4pM7NNtQ at mail.gmail.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

Isn't the key idea that Knuth is getting at the distinction between
technical histories and other kinds such as social and business histories?

One can appreciate all of these, but if a course in a computer science or
engineering degree program is to be turned over to history -- when the
number of technical requirements is already almost more than a program can
bear -- then that history course should probably support the technical
content of the program.  If the course is fulfilling general education or
other requirements then its content would not surprisingly be humanities or
business oriented, and a dearth of heavy-duty technical topics would not be
a problem.

Many of us who teach in computer science programs would love to see
textbooks and more papers on the technical history of computing so that we
could use them in our programs.  Of course, the social, personal, and other
aspects of history should not (and probably could not) be avoided, but we
would need much more substantial and even coverage of the technical aspects
of computing systems than we see in most current historical work.

- Bill

On Thu, May 15, 2014 at 10:07 AM, Paul N. Edwards <pne at umich.edu> wrote:

I completely agree with Tom's analysis. A few additional questions re.
Knuth?s abstract:

  - Who is the ?we? in Knuth?s ?let?s??
  - In what way has history ever been ?useful? to computer scientists?
  It would be interesting to hear Knuth?s views on this - useful in
  education? Personal interest? Celebration? Credit (reputation)?
  - Finally, for what audience do people write internalist history
  today? Who publishes it, and who actually reads it? Could someone create
  some statistics, for example, on the number of downloads of Annals
  articles, divided along some rough criterion between internal and external

In my view, as in Tom?s, there?s still a great deal of internalist history
going on. A lot of it is at the level of raw materials - oral histories
collected by ACM (I did a couple of these myself a few years back),
collecting of documents and other archival materials, etc.

The Computer History Museum ? probably the single best-funded institution
in our field ? generally takes an internalist approach, though it does try
to build a bridge to external history. It would be interesting to get some
data on CHM visitors? backgrounds. I imagine it?s unbelievably hard to
create compelling museum exhibits on the history of key ideas in
algorithms, computer architecture, software engineering, etc.  Is CHM
visited by computer scientists in search of their field?s past?

Knuth?s idea that ?we only get a scorecard? is downright offensive. Aside
from journalistic corporate histories, I can?t think of much professional
history that fits this description ? certainly few people on this mailing
list write that kind of thing. This makes me suspect that Knuth does not
have much of a sense of the difference between journalism and professional
historiography, nor of this SIG as a community. Can we educate him?


On May 14, 2014, at 12:19 , Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:

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 community.

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 side.

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<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
This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list
of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at
http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription
options at http://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members
This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list
of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at
http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription
options athttp://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members


Paul N. Edwards
Professor of Information <http://www.si.umich.edu/> and History<http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/>,
University of Michigan
          A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the
Politics of Global Warming<http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/vastmachine/index.html> (MIT
Press, 2010)

Terse replies are deliberate <http://five.sentenc.es/> (and better than

University of Michigan School of Information <http://www.si.umich.edu/>
3439 North Quad
105 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285
(734) 764-2617 (office)
(206) 337-1523  (fax)

This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list
of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at
http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription
options at http://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/attachments/20140515/6d5e8824/attachment.html>


Members mailing list
Members at sigcis.org

End of Members Digest, Vol 47, Issue 11

More information about the Members mailing list