[SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Mon Oct 6 10:59:44 PDT 2014

Thanks Janet,

I noticed that the same NPR segment has him claiming that "Babbage's machine
was never built. But his designs and Lovelace's notes were read by people
building the first computer a century later." Swade, Bromley, Randell,
Cohen, and as far as I know all serious historians who have looked for a
substantive influence of Babbage on the conception or design of ENAIC,
EDVAC, EDSAC, or the Harvard Mark 1 have concluded that there was none. 

Aiken did seize rhetorically on Babbage as a precursor whose lineage he was
taking up, but as Cohen notes in Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer
Pioneer, he became aware of Babbage only after proposing to build his
computer and did not learn of Lovelace's work or appreciate the importance
of conditional branching for some years later. After a very careful
examination (p.61-72) Cohen concluded that "Aiken was generally ignorant of
Babbage's machines" at this point, having seen only brief accounts, and
including "summary (and somewhat erroneous) statements about Babbage's
machines" in his 1937 proposal. Thus "Babbage did not play a major role in
the development of Aiken's ideas." Instead "Aiken praised Babbage to enhance
his own stature." He also quotes Hopper as saying that she was unaware of
Lovelace's work "until ten of fifteen years later." 

Likewise, the NPR segment (not sure if this is Isaacson himself) says that
"Bartik and her team went on to work on the UNIVAC, one of the first major
commercial computers." I believe that only two of the initial six
(Jennings/Bartik in 1948 and Snyder/Holberton in 1947) followed Eckert and

It's like the bit in his book on Jobs where he startled me (and, Google
confirms, many other people) by writing that the magneto optical drive in
the NeXT was not good as main storage because its latency was too LOW. I
don't expect Isaacson to know what latency is, but wouldn't it have been
better to pay for a close reading by someone who understands tech well
enough to know a faster response is a good thing for a disk drive used as
virtual memory? The Jobs book was rushed when its subject died, which
perhaps cut short the editing process, but he claims that this new book was
under development for a decade.

On the other hand, Paul's comment on the movie potential of the story makes
me see this in the broader context of Isaacson as an elite member of the
news-entertainment complex. To make a true story fit within the genre
expectations of a movie there are all kinds of liberties taken with the
truth -- minor characters consolidated, timelines simplified, motives
simplified, links between scenes invented. To a lesser extent that narrative
streamlining is perhaps what Isaacson is doing here to tie his vignettes
together by inventing a connection from Lovelace to ENIAC and by greatly
simplifying the connections from the ENIAC operations team to Hopper to

The headline NPR "The Forgotten Female Programmers Who Created Modern Tech"
also wondering how famous someone can be and still be forgotten. Would it be
reasonable to set two documentary films, a number of major honors, and an NY
Times obit as threshold to indicate that Bartik and her colleagues were
already rescued from obscurity years before Isaacson arrived? How about Ada
Lovelace's multiple full length biographies, appearance in various novels,
and Ada Lovelace Day? Lovelace is surely more famous than any Turing Award
winner or anyone building a computer in the 1940s apart from Turing and
possibly von Neumann. Google's Ngram viewer shows her overtaking Eckert,
Zuse, Mauchly, Aiken, Atanasoff or Wilkes by 1992 and staying ahead of them
ever since.


Best wishes,


-----Original Message-----
From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
Behalf Of Janet Abbate
Sent: Monday, October 06, 2014 9:06 AM
To: members
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book

In the NPR segment, Isaacson claims that Grace Hopper invented COBOL. "He
could find out that's not true just by looking at Wikipedia," I thought....
then looked at the "COBOL" entry and found Grace Hopper plastered all over
it. Time for some editing.


Dr. Janet Abbate
Associate Professor, Science & Technology in Society Co-director, National
Capital Region STS program Virginia Tech www.sts.vt.edu/ncr

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