[SIGCIS-Members] Metropolis on Writing the History of Computing

B. Randell Brian.Randell at ncl.ac.uk
Mon May 19 03:37:00 PDT 2014

Hi Scott:

Your Metropolis quote reminds me of something that Kenneth O. May, then head of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto, once said to me. I was visiting there, I think just after my book "The Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers" had been published in 1973, and I was invited to give a seminar. He sensed that I felt uncomfortable, a mere computer scientist, at the thought of giving a seminar in such a distinguished venue, and I will always recall his reassurance, which was to the effect: "Don't worry Brian, there is as much bad history of science written by historians who don't understand science as by scientists who don't understand history."

In fact I had been made aware of my limitations as a self-taught "historian" by my wife, who had been horrified to find that I thought Blaise Pascal's main claim to fame was as the inventor of one of the first calculating machines. So I felt I was not fitted to produce anything more than what I learned was known as an "internalist" history. Indeed I am very pleased that such histories of computing continue to be produced, alongside ones that take a broader (and sometimes shallower) view.


Brian Randell
On 19 May 2014, at 00:00, Scott Guthery <sbg at acw.com> wrote:

> With regards to difficulties in writing the history of computing, the paper “A Trilogy of Errors in the History of Computing” by Metropolis and Worlton (AHC, v.2 no. 1, January 1980, pp. 49—59) may be a relevant read.  The lead sentences are:
> “The critic who investigates the inadequacies of the history of computing is at once faced with an embarrassment of riches. Computer scientists seem determined to confirm the judgment of professional historians that scientists should not be depended upon to produce the histories of their own fields.”
> and yet further on the authors say:
> “Computer science is fortunate to have people trained in both history and computing to direct the major project on the history of computing at the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, but there is an essential role for the “good amateur” to play in preparing this history. The field is so broad and the professional historians so few that they cannot do all of the detailed work of collecting, organizing, and documenting that is necessary; further, much of the information is known only to the computing pioneers who are, by and large, amateurs in the field of history.”
> Cheers, Scott
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