[SIGCIS-Members] Fwd: Knuth (Comment from Len Shustek)

Dag Spicer dspicer at computerhistory.org
Sun May 18 11:33:13 PDT 2014

Dear SIGCIS Friends,

I am posting this on behalf of SIGCIS member and CHM co-founder and chairman Len Shustek, who is having trouble posting.


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

Begin forwarded message:

To: members at sigcis.org<mailto:members at sigcis.org>
From: Len Shustek <len at shustek.com<mailto:len at shustek.com>>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Donald Knuth

At 07:18 AM 5/14/2014, Ceruzzi, Paul wrote:
> 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?

Several of us from the Computer History Museum attended, and the topic was indeed as has been discussed here.

While I deeply regret that Don, as you will see when Stanford posts the video, lit into Martin Campbell-Kelly with such intensity, I confess that I am sympathetic to his angst. Surely our field is important enough to warrant a thorough treatment of both externalist and internalist history. We are large, we contain multitudes. As Tom Haigh said, "It's not clear to me that this is a zero sum game."

Paul Edwards said "The Computer History Museum ...generally takes an internalist approach, though it does try to build a bridge to external history."  That's a fair characterization, but unfortunately most of our energy has so far gone into collecting material (like oral histories, personal archives, historic source code, and of course physical objects) that will be useful for later technical histories. We have not yet gotten to "do history" from the internalist perspective much ourselves. We hope that will change in the future.

Paul also said "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?"

That's not the right question. Exhibits for the general public are not the right venue, or the right medium, for distributing internalist history. That history is for a different audience, like the budding computer scientist who should understand how the Atlas computer introduced paging, just as the budding physicist should understand how Millikan measured the charge on the electron.

Bill McMillan said, "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." That is an appropriate audience, not the tourist we also serve who has just come from Fisherman's Wharf and is headed next to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

-- Len Shustek, CHM co-founder and Chairman

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