[SIGCIS-Members] Knuth [From Barbara Walker]

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Sun May 18 13:44:19 PDT 2014

[Forwarded from new SIGCIS member Barbara Walker, who has fallen victim to
the email troll. Tom].


From: Barbara Walker <bbwalker at unr.edu>
Date: Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 10:49 AM
To: "members at sigcis.org" <members at sigcis.org>, "members-bounces at sigcis.org"
<members-bounces at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Knuth


Greetings, I found this fascinating exchange in my mailbox after a couple of
days out of town, hence my late contribution. 


I am currently at the Institute for Advanced Study where I am working in
part on a comparison of the John von Neumann and Sergei Lebedev computer
projects. I am a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union who in the past
has written about personal networks, patronage, and sociability in Russian
intelligentsia circles, and am currently finding many of the same principles
at work in the 20th-century organization of mathematics and computer
science. (hence I belong to the "soft" side of the history of science and


A meeting such as that proposed by Liesbeth De Mol and David Nofre would be
wonderful, and other questions might be included as well, such as how
computer history in all its possible forms is to be included, supported, and
developed institutionally, especially at the college/university level where
it can be passed on through teaching. What university departments might hire
computer historians? How would their teaching fit into current college
programs, majors, etc.? Who might be willing to fund such positions? I have
been puzzling over these questions as I consider how I could convince my
US-based university to hire a historian of computing, and what kinds of
alliances I might try to form with other departments, deans, etc.


Best, Barbara


From: Liesbeth De Mol <elizabeth.demol at ugent.be>
Date: Friday, May 16, 2014 at 4:15 AM
To: "members at sigcis.org" <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Knuth


I think David's proposal is great! This is exactlly what others and myself
have been trying to achieve with the commission on the history and
philosophy of computing: to create a platform where computer scientists,
historians and philosophers can meet! 

In a sense I think both Tom and Knuth have a point and I am convinced that
they are not incommensurable. In my own work I have always tried to write
for both historians and computer scientists and it is extremely hard to find
a good (read: sub-optimal) balance. I guess that most historians of
computing make, at some point, the choice for a particular public, for
instance, historians, if chances at being hired by a history department are
higher than those for being hired by a computer science department. 

In my personal view, the history of computing /is/ extremely important for
computer science and it is for that reason that I have made an effort (and
am stilling making an effort) at building (small and fragile) bridges
between the two communities. This means that in my work I /do/emphasize the
need for technical details. But there is also another sense in which I value
these details: from a historical point of view, I /do/think that technical
details matter -- they allow you to partially understand how, in a given
practice, certain developments are embedded in problems that arise from
within that very practice, a practice which usually involves humans,
machines, formalizations or at least notations, institutions, books,
technical reports, etc. 

I think we are /not/ in need of one view on what history of computing
/should/ be, rather, I think we are in need of well-argued multiple
approaches /and/ discussion accross them. This is in my opinion the best way
to account for the rich history that has been offered to us by the field of

my best wishes, 

david nofre schreef op 16/05/14 09:50:

I enjoyed very much the discussion, thanks. I think we would agree that
the history of computer science as academic discipline is basically
undeveloped. So just an idea: invite Knuth & maybe other prominent
computer scientists to one of the SIGCIS Workshops to discuss with them
ways of writing the history of computer science?
David Nofre
On 05/15/2014 10:37 PM, Thomas Haigh wrote:

Dag has a point, in that computer science offers few rewards to computer
scientists for the writing of history. However it is also true that computer
science offers few rewards to Ph.D. historians for the writing of history.
We therefore focus instead on writing work that impresses our doctoral
committees, might get us hired in disciplines and departments that actually
do sometimes hire historians, might get us published in journals that count
for our tenure committees, and so on through our careers.
Thus it's not entirely clear why Knuth would expect historians to listen to
his urgings to produce technical history useful to computer scientists when
computer scientists themselves are not, as a community, willing to produce,
reward, or pay for work of that kind.
-----Original Message-----
From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
Behalf Of Dag Spicer
Sent: Thursday, May 15, 2014 2:51 PM
To: members at sigcis.org
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Members Digest, Vol 47, Issue 11
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
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Today's Topics:
  1. Re: Donald Knuth (William McMillan)
Message: 1
Date: Thu, 15 May 2014 13:39:52 -0400
From: William McMillan  <mailto:wmcmillan at emich.edu> <wmcmillan at emich.edu>
To: sigcis  <mailto:members at sigcis.org> <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Donald Knuth
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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  <mailto:pne at umich.edu>
<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  <mailto:thaigh at computer.org>
<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
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 <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
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Paul N. Edwards
Professor of Information  <http://www.si.umich.edu/>
<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
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