[SIGCIS-Members] Should we crowdsource an Isaacson fact check?

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Tue Oct 7 11:44:41 PDT 2014

Hello Bernard (& SIGCIS)


Thanks for the thoughtful response. It seems to be that there are two main
ways we as a community might choose to respond to popular non-fiction work
such as that presented by Dyson or Issacson. The first is to treat it as
historical scholarship in need of expert review, checking its various claims
and assessing the extent to which consists of statements which, while
simplified, can be reconciled with expert consensus and primary sources.


The other is to go to the meta level, and ask what the popularity of
particular kinds of narrative tells us about the world we live in, perhaps
taking a memory studies approach and charting the different ways in which
ENIAC, for example, has been represented over time.


I’ve done both in the past, for example with respect to the “Inventor of
Email” where I both maintain a page debunking his specific claims and wrote
a column for CACM looking at broader lessons from the affair. Our ENIAC book
include a chapter “Remembering ENIAC” looking at its posthumous career, and
I will certainly be adding a short discussion of Isaacson into its last
section on the 2000-onward era we characterize as “The ENIAC of Women.”


I just purchased the Kindle version of Isaacson’s book and am already noting
a number of factual errors small and large. Some of these are a result of
necessary simplification performed without finesse (e.g. a rather incoherent
treatment of the “stored program concept”) but many are flat out
carelessness where being accurate would not have made the text any longer or
harder to understand. For example statements that ENIAC was designed to
calculate missile (rather than shell) trajectories, that the Army no longer
intended to calculate firing tables after the end of the war, use of Bartik
quotes about 1947 meetings with von Neumann to characterize his 1944
meetings with the ENIAC team before she even came to the Moore School, etc. 


At one point he claims that ENIAC was one of the first two stored program
computers along with the Manchester Baby. That’s trueish, though our
conclusion was that this points out the limitations of “stored program” as a
category. However next two consecutive sentences are completely incoherent,
in crediting it both with program storage only in read only memory (true)
and a functioning delay line memory in April 1947 (a total fantasy): “a read
only memory, which meant it was hard to modify programs while they were
running. In addition, its mercury delay line memory was sluggish and
required prevision engineering.” A paragraph or two earlier he calls the
mathematician Richard Clippinger and physicist Nick Metropolis engineers. In
many other places he relies on claims made in oral histories without looking
to see if historians have been able to reconcile the details quoted with
other sources.


Now to combine these two perspectives, it’s probably the job of someone like
Isaacson to write popular history that is wildly inaccurate in many details
and the job of scholarly historians to pedantically point out errors and be
largely ignored. Meanwhile he will win all the fame and media attention we
secretly believe should be ours, but which our fusty attachment to accurate
detail and distain for the narrative expectations of popular history will
forever deny us. It’s not that we want to come at Isaacson with pitchforks
and flaming torches to demand that his book be pulped, and it will surely
increase general interest in our field. But the thought of students or
researchers citing some of these details is scary, and his book does have
the outward appearance of a serious contribution – it has footnotes, a
surprising amount of technical terminology, etc. Errors here will be
disseminated widely.


So there might be some benefit in putting up on the SIGCIS site a crowd
sourced fact check to document clear cut errors in the text, using quoted
primary or authoritative secondary sources to document the truth.
(Reactionary as I do feel to appropriate momentarily the concepts of truth
and authority). Then if, for example, a SIGCIS member finds an odd assertion
sourced from Isaacson in a student paper being graded he or she could point
to the SIGCIS page as evidence that ENIAC did not have a delay line memory,
that Hopper “did not serve as the technical lead in coordinating the
creation of COBOL,” that a large part of ENIAC’s existence was spent
calculating firing tables, etc.


Note to enthusiasts: this does not include grading Isaacson on his fidelity
to one or another school of thought on the “first computer,” etc. 


So, does anyone with an interest in such things want to volunteer to edit
such a page? That would primarily involve check submissions from SIGCIS
members for inclusion and making decisions on what counts as a clear factual
error vs. a personal interpretation.


Best wishes,



From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
Behalf Of Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
Sent: Monday, October 06, 2014 4:43 PM
To: members at sigcis.org
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book 2


Dear All,

I've been thinking about these kinds of histories, quarrels, and computer
historiographies in recent months, esp. in the light of the "debate" around
Shiva Ayyadurai and the invention of email. I'm interested in these
histories, claims, and claimants for the origins and development of info
technologies. They are stimulating and telling ("symptomatic" one might say)
for the reason that "computer historiography" is not to my mind an
impartial, neutral recounting of a series of rote facts, but rather itself a
vibrant actor within the history of computational innovation. The Shiva case
shows this pretty well, because the "historiography" is in some way
coextensive with individuals staking claims that shape their ability to act
in the field in the present (i.e. Shiva has patents, a start-up company,
etc, so I think his belated discovery of his "invention" speaks to his
present-day ambitions;  his enlisting of The Smithsonian etc. to back up his
claims is an fascinating case of an actor-network theoretical aligning of
interests in action). Same goes for the Isaacson books, because they also
involve efforts to ally, interest, and orient readers around certain
conceptions of where and how invention happens. These frames and theories of
innovation converge with other agendas (figuring out how private markets
shaped the PC revolution; granting women greater representation in
computational histories; writing a history of computing focused on its
ability to stimulate our passions rather than just crunch numbers). These
kinds of frames and agendas relate specifically to the struggles surrounding
innovation and education in the present; that they should bear on popular
histories shouldn't be so surprising, nor that they would come to bear upon
how the Smithsonian or TIME magazine decides to acknowledge innovation. 

As for the kinds of cases surrounding the "ENIAC girls" invoked in a
previous mail: Even despite the condescending instances of tokenism invoked
by Tom, I think that when push comes to shove, actually distinguishing the
"real" or "authentic" innovation from the cultural hype proves  tricky (this
isn't meant as a counter-argument--Tom's commented on these same problems
elsewhere). As works by Ensmenger and Jen Light and others note, the
distinctions between  invention and innovation, hardware and software,
engineers and mere programmers, scientific and technical labor, etc,
themselves rest upon a set of (often naive and shortsighted) cultural
assumptions over what's the "real" work of computing. Ensmenger in
particular shows that these cultural assumptions have profound consequences
at the very heart of technological development: There's a decent argument
that early computer scientists entirely dismissed programming as a kind of
subaltern variety of labor, contributing both to the wartime assignment of
this work to women, and the industry-crippling software crisis that
followed. This makes the attempt to sift though debating historical causes
and factors enmeshed, from the outset, in  debates over cultural theory,
gender, notions of material history and cultural labor, and so on (Schaffer
makes a similar point in Babbage's Intelligence). The attempt to identify a
baseline for the "real history" of a technology and its development never
"escapes" cultural agendas, for example, re-examining the
under-representation of women in computing, which can be credibly cited as a
determining factor in the technological (mis-)development in the field.  So
as I see it, the work of historiography is really about these ongoing
battles and quarrels in our midst, each of which deploys alternate values
and horizons for making sense of informatics--a process that necessarily
will continue to evolve and unsettle, without much resolution, so long as
our field remains vibrant and relevant. Isaacson is an actor in this field,
much as we are, even as von Neumann was, even if there are (as Tom correctly
urges us to recognize) different roles of vastly different import. 

Moreover, I think readers approach histories like Isaacson's with the
ability to recognize that the claims are sort of puffed up. For example, I
don't think many readers of Standage's history of the telegraph take as
literally true his claim that it was "the Victorian internet" nor his other
book's claims that the 17th c. Chess-Playing Turk gave rise to IBM computing
machines. Readers turn to these accounts for fun, diverting accounts that
mix trivia, drama, and fragments of technical knowledge, as well as
orientation in the varied kinds of forces that play out in the history of a
technology. These histories, in turn, were often convened in response to a
given topical event (anniversary, marketing event, product launch, someone's
death). Readers recognize that, too.

I wrote about this awhile back in the IEEE Annals, in an article titled "The
Historiographic Conception of Information," a kind of reflection on the
status of historiography within computing. As I put it there, in discussing
popular accounts of Claude Shannon on the occasion of his death, I wrote:
‘Computer history’’ does not appear before the public as a...natural and
unmediated accounting of clearcut facts. Instead, a historically specific
organization of experts, research, resources, and interpretive frames
emerges in response to present and presumably historical events. This is not
the meddling intervention of outside interests and biases upon the neutral
labor of historiography; rather, these are the basic conditions for writing
computer history. These conditions’ appearance prompts questions about how a
retiring mathematician [Claude Shannon], skeptical about his personal
acclaim, emerged as a recognizable and heroic subject of popular interest.

I guess I'm not above taking some delight in our field's status as a kind of
joyful cultural science whose interest and relevance is deeply tied up with
its ability to bisect pop culture, current events, and institutional
struggles. And if our field attracts shallow excitement and fantastic tale
telling, I'm not above welcoming this, our imaginative fecundity, however
suspect its offspring may seem.


On 10/5/14 9:47 PM, Chuck House wrote:

personal opinion, based on the Steve Jobs book and my interview with
Isaacson after his talk at the Computer History Museum, this will be a
relatively shallow treatment by a gifted captivating writer 


On Oct 5, 2014, at 1:28 PM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:

Hello everyone,


I haven't read Isaacson's book yet, but have been looking at some reviews
with interest. It sounds from the review that Andy links to that the book
gets better as it goes on. On the historical part, Wisnioski notes in his
polite and generally favorable review that "Isaacson diligently attends to
this syllabus, but it curbs his trademark enthusiasm, and many of his
anecdotes are well-worn."


What I've seen in other places makes me question the diligence of Isaacson's
attention in the earlier chapters, like that of Jane Smiley in her attempt
at a popular history of early computing a few years ago.  According to a
profile in the New York Times the book starts and ends with Ada Lovelace.
Isaacson credits her to the extent of observing that


“Ada Lovelace defined the digital age,” Mr. Isaacson said in one of several
recent interviews about the book

“If it wasn’t for Ada Lovelace, there’s a chance that none of this would
even exist,” Mr. Isaacson added as he waved his hand in the air, gesturing
as if to encompass all of Silicon Valley and the techies sitting around us.


Given that Babbage’s project was itself apparently unknown to computer
pioneers of the 1940s such as Aiken, Eckert, Atanasoff  and Mauchly at the
time they conceptualized and designed their machines this claim seems to me
quite impossible to justify, however profound Lovelace’s contribution to
that project was.


He also has a chapter on the “Women of ENIAC.” That has been put up as an
text and audiobook extract as a teaser prior to the launch of the book.


This chapter captures a broader trend in ENIAC’s changing role in collective
memory: for about fifteen years now it has been remembered primarily as a
machine programmed by women. Even within the scholarly literature our
discussion of the place of the initial cohort of six operators has sometimes
mischaracterized the work they were hired to do and exaggerated their
contributions to the development of thinking about what ENIAC could be used
to do and how it might be configured to accomplish those tasks. That’s
something I’ve become aware of in returning to primary sources for my
forthcoming book ENIAC in Action with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope. Janet
started this thread with mention of some NPR interviews, and coverage in her
recent book Recoding Gender makes a definite contribution towards clarifying
these issues. In contrast, drawing almost entirely on oral histories and
memoir, Isaacson is for the most part just summarizing the consensus when he
implies that Jean Jennings and her colleagues made fundamental innovations
by, for example, realizing that the master programmer could be used to do
the exact task it was designed and built to perform: looping nested


It seems that the book is held together with a Gladwellian argument about
the collective and incremental nature of innovation, which is certainly
preferable to the lone genius view of history. However the ending of the
ENIAC extract makes me question how tightly though through this argument is:
he asserts that “all the programmers who created the first general-purpose
computer were women”. That’s either a very radical STS argument that a
computer is only created in use, or a sign that he did not spend much time
thinking about what creating a computer involves.


Now of course Lovelace, the “Women of ENIAC,” Hopper, and a few others are
of interest to a lot of people because of their instrumental value as the
source of parables useful in the rebranding of computing as a field created
in large part by women. That’s a worthy goal, and there are no wrong reasons
to be interested in history. Isaacson’s book will sell maybe 1,000 times
more than anything that any of us are ever likely to write. However it would
be nice if there was a way to achieve this without pretending that a causal
chain makes Ada Lovelace essential to the “birth of the digital age” or
Jennings and her colleagues essential to the creation of ENIAC. Is there a
necessary tradeoff between historical accuracy and inspirational value, as
with the story about young George Washington and the cherry tree? I hope


Best wishes,


This email is relayed from  <mailto:members at sigcis.org> members at sigcis.org,
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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/
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Dr. Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
Institut für Kulturwissenschaft
Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
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