History Resources - Source Guide

by Thomas Haigh and other members of the SIGCIS Executive Committee.

e-mail thaigh@computer.org -- home www.tomandmaria.com/tom

This work licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

[This portion of the website is currently undergoing maintenance]

If you would like to access the earlier version of this website in the meantime, please contact  one of our communications officers, Gerardo Con Diaz, at condiaz@ucdavis.edu.

Archives and Museums

Charles Babbage Institute (start here)

There are two main reasons to visit the Babbage website. The first is to access its collection of oral history interviews, now numbering several hundred. Almost all of these have been transcribed, and the transcripts can be downloaded. A simple web interface lets you search the abstracts and keywords for names or phrases of interest. The other main reason is to browse the finding aids for its archival collections. A finding aid is basically a catalog, listing the contents of each folder stored within the archives. While almost none of the archival material is available online (the exception being a selection of photos from the Burroughs collection), having access to the finding aids lets you see what relevant materials is held by CBI, request materials in advance of a visit, or even purchase copies of particular documents without visiting. The site also holds the full run of the institute's newsletter, covering the history of computing since the late 1970s.

Computer History Museum (start here)

A successor to the Computer Museum formerly located in Boston, the CHM has now settled into its new home in the heart of Silicon Valley, a stylish former SGI building acquired in 2002. Having raised many tens of millions of dollars from the computer industry elite, the museum opened its main permanent exhibit, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing" at the start of 2011. This replaced its interim "visible storage" area as a showcase for its various treasures. The museum has also relied on its website to reach the public, creating a number of smaller on-line exhibitions based around timelines and photographs, and covering topics such as the Internetthe microprocessor, and computer chess. It also documents the museum's busy schedule of talks by computer celebrities, and hosts its glossy newsletter CORE.

Similar in intent to the Charles Babbage Institute, but for the UK. Its main content is a set of catalogs of archival holdings stored in the John Rylands library of the University of Manchester.


IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (start here)

Few libraries have a full run of this journal. Fortunately, the IEEE Computer Society Digital Library now covers all 30 volumes in .pdf form, though the earlier issues seem to have been scanned without compression, resulting in some very bulky files. For recent volumes, there is a convenient feature to download the whole issue in a single file. Even if you do not have a personal subscription, your institution may well subscribe.

Information and Culture (start here)

Technology and Culture (start here)

Professional Associations

SIGCIS: SHOT Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society (start here)

SIGCIS has been around since the 1980s, existing mostly to host an lunch or breakfast meeting as part of SHOT's annual meetings. Since 2005 it has been growing more active, creating an email list of more than 200 members used for announcements, discussion and organization. The SIG has organized sessions for the SHOT, 4S and Business History Conference meetings, set up informal dinners for historians of computing to meet at other meetings, and has established its own web domain to host material on the history of computing. If you have a scholarly interest in the history of computing you should join the SIGCIS email list.

alt.folklore.computers (newsgroup)

A good source of historical tidbits is this long-running and much-trafficked newsgroup where old-timers hangout and remember the good old days. Passionate discussions, hacker culture, reminiscences and historical trivia. The Google news archive is a great resource - 

ASIS&T: Special Interest Group on the History and Foundations of Information Science

ASIS&T is the scholarly/professional society for information scientists -- which is what technically and scientifically oriented library science type people call themselves. People associated with the group organized conferences on the history of information science and scientific information systems in 1998 and 2002. It  been less active recently, but continues to sponsor sessions at the association's annual meetings. The SIG is only open to ASIS&T members and has a strange double identity covering both history and theory -- according to its website it "develops theories, fundamental concepts, and models of information science and cybernetics so that satisfactory theoretical frameworks will ultimately generate better information systems and services. It embraces philosophical, semiological, mathematical, physical, biological, psychological and sociological disciplines."

IT History Society

A successor to the Charles Babbage Foundation, which created the Charles Babbage Institute and supported its work in the 1980s and 1990s. After trying several new directions in the 2000s, it abandoned the foundation model and relaunched in 2007 as a society with individual and corporate members. Membership is free, though donations are encouraged. So far the society's efforts have focused on building its member list and adding material to its website, which now boasts an "IT Honor Roll," an "exclusive International Database of Historical and Archival Sites," some blogs, and a calendar of forthcoming events related to the history of computing.

Software History Center

On-line resource, including a list of early mainframe software figures and a number of short anecdotes.

Resource Center in Cyberculture Studies

This website has an excellent collection of links, book reviews and literally hundreds of syllabi concerned with cultural and sociological aspects of the internet. Courses with historical content make up an appreciable minority of the online syllabi. It's no longer updated, but for historians that just means it is gradually turning from secondary to primary source.


Online Historical Documents

Corporate Archives

IBM Archives

Includes a catalog of their main archives. While most of the actual content is not on-line, they do appear to be working to add material - including a useful A-Z glossary and some materials concerning the PC and the 701, IBM's first big computer.

Making the Macintosh: Technology and Culture in Silicon Valley

An attractively laid out site, with a solid selection of primary documents and interviews online to tell the story of the Mac design project. It goes beyond the usual discussion of Steve Jobs and the core Mac software team to discuss user groups, industrial design, and documentation. This site complements Alex Pang's Mouse Site and its digital copy of Doug Englebart's famous demo.

Selling the Computer Revolution: Marketing Brochures in the Collection

The Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley has built up a huge collection of books, papers, records and publications to accompany its computer hardware collections. Unfortunately the museum has not yet ramped up its archival operations sufficiently to offer online finding aids for most of its collections or operate a regular archival reading room. Official policy is that records are available for academic research use only on by special request at a charge of $50 an hour (three hours a year free for students). If you're not independently wealthy you may still find it worth getting in touch with the Senior Curator to ask whether these rules can be relaxed for a worthy research project. The other option is to visit the growing selection of material the museum has scanned and placed online. This includes a nice collection of early computer brochures, and other collections on the IBM Stretch and PDP-1.

Public Institutions

Smithsonian Computer History Collection

Includes a guide to the Information Age exhibit formerly on display at the National Museum of American History, as well as on-line resources and oral histo ries.

The NATO Software Engineering Conferences 

Brian Randell, one of the editors of the proceedings of the celebrated Garmisch and Rome conferences at which the idea of Software Engineering was given its first serious discussion, has placed the original reports on-line together with some photographs and reminiscences.

UVA Computer Science: Computer Museum 

Apparently based on a physical collection of machines and memorabilia. Doesn't give much context, but does include a whole lot of nice scans of important computers, components, manuals and specification sheets (click on images from the main page for more or bigger ones).

Assorted Resources


Behind the unassuming "webpage from 1994" design of the front page and the equally retro "FTP site in 1991" layout of its interior lurks a treasure trove of high quality scans of old technical documents. Right now the front page claims 19,450 documents totalling almost two million pages. For early IBM computers, for example, this includes a range of software package instructions(FORTRAN, IOCS, Autocoder, RPG, etc) and peripheral manuals, reference guides, schematics, and even code listings. As historians turn more to detailed studies of issues such as practice, labor, software platforms, and materiality this kind of source will be invaluable to future research. You'll have to dig to find relevant material though, as the documents are sorted into directories by manufacturer and machine with no other metadata and no search capabilities of any kind. There's also a collection of old software images, though that will be of interest primarily to the computer preservationist and emulationist communities.

Classic Computer Magazine Archive

This volunteer site holds the digital full text of a growing number of computer hobbyist magazines from the late 1970s and 1980s, including Antic and Creative Computing.

Columbia University Computing History

What sets this site apart from most institutional history sites is that is is packed full of actual historical content, in this case documenting scientific computing with punched card and early electronic computers at Columbia's Watson Lab. The site is home to an expanded version of autobiography by computing pioneer and legendary curmudegon Herb Grosh, scanned books on punched card computing, and other history and memoirs.

DigiBarn Computer Museum

One of those defiantly disorganized sites, scrolling down for page after overstuffed page. It documents a physical homebrew museum, which like several such establishments across the US seems to take a nineteenth century, "cabinet of curiosities" approach, cramming a lot of stuff into limited space. As well as pictures of rate and no so rare personal computers and peripherals, it hosts some interesting stories, some digitized documents and memorabelia, and lots of photographs of old software. There are huge numbers of sites around the net aimed at collectors, reproducing old documentation, photographing obscure prototype and celebrating beloved machines.

Ed Thelen's Antique Computer Site

Holds an unmatched trove of vintage computer documentation in its "on-line documents" section, including original manuals for several key computers and IBM punched card machines and a series of reports from the 1950s and 1960s surveying the early computer industry. This is a personal home site, hard to navigate but full of interesting nuggets.

Historic Documents in Computer Science

Someone called Karl Kleine has scanned a set of early manuals for programming languages, from FORTRAN to C++.

World of Spectrum

I'll pick just one of the sea of retrocomputing, nostalgia and emulation sites. This one covers the much loved Sinclair Spectrum from the early 1980s, and links to dozens of emulators, an archive of thousands of programs, documentation and, most remarkably, a searchable database covering thousands of pages from old computer magazines. No professionally trained historians have yet produced any substantial work on this era, but there is certainly a mass of source material out there.

Oral Histories

Charles Babbage Institute Oral History Collection (start here)

This is by far the world's most important collection of computer-related oral history interviews. Most of the transcripts are available online. The collection includes well known computer scientists such as Dijkstra, Minsky, and Knuth, a large selection of interview with people in the computer industry, and interviews from special projects focusing on the history of the Internet and other DARPA supported research and on the history of computer software. Most of the interviews are reasonably lengthy and conducted by well trained and prepared historians.

ACM Oral Histories

In 2004 the Association for Computing Machinery established the ACM History Committee. So far its main activity has been to sponsor a number of oral history interviews with the association's surviving presidents from the 1970s and earlier. Interviews with winners of the ACM Turing Award have also been planned. At the time of writing six interviews are posted, with subjects including Charles W. Bachman, Walter M. Carlson and Bernard Galler. Unfortunately not all the transcripts are complete, some are still in draft form, and they can only be accessed by subscribers to the ACM Digital Library. (That's not quite as restrictive as it sounds, since many university libraries have institutional subscriptions). ACM plans to donate these to the Charles Babbage Institute eventually, where they will be easier to access.

Computerworld Oral Histories

This collection consists of interviews conducted in conjunction with the Computerworld Honors Program (Computerworld is a trade newspaper for the computer industry). They're not much cited by historians, but are well done and include some big names such as Bill Gates, Seymour Cray, Michael Dell, Gordon Moore and Larry Ellison.

National Museum of American History Computer Oral Histories Collection

Back in the late-1960s and early-1970s, the AFIPS-Smithsonian oral histories project was the first organized effort to preserve the history of computing. Oral histories were set up with many computing pioneers involved with the computers of the 1940s and 50s. The quality varies. Many are short, and questions tend to focus on early computer installations rather than the rest of the subject's career. But because this project was so early it included many people unavailable to later interviewers, such as Howard Aiken and Grace Hopper. For a long time these transcripts were hard to access, and so they were not used as much as they could have been. But the full set can be consulted in the reading room of the National Museum of American History, and a growing number are available online from the second link given above.

Silicon Genesis collection at Stanford University

A selection of interview with well known Silicon Valley figures such as Regis McKenna and Gordon Moore, and many of the important chip designers of the 1970s and 80s. Rather short interviews, and not really up to professional standards though you can watch video for them. Also the transcripts fail to identify the interviewer, except by initials!

SIAM History Project

SIAM, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, received a grant to study the history of scientific computing and numerical analysis. The project website, still under development as of late 2006, includes a growing selection of oral history interviews and other useful materials. I conducted a series of 23 full-career interviews with people involved in creating software packages and libraries for the project. Other interviews contributed more interviews. The full collection includes William Kahan, Cleve Moler, Jack Dongarra, Fritz Bauer, Bill Gear, Gene Golub and Pete Stewart. The transcripts should eventually be joining the Charles Babbage Institute collection.

Key Books and Articles on the History of Computing

Reference Works and Overall Histories

Computer: A History of the Information Machine (2013), by  Martin Campbell-Kelly, William Aspray, Nathan Ensmenger, and Jeffrey Yost (start here)

The best overall history of the computer. It examines at the computer primarily as an extension of other business tools, focuses on business history of the firms producing computers. Summarizes a lot of earlier work while weaving it into a story. Good treatment of ENIAC and its commercialization as Univac, IBM's mainframes of the 50s and 60s and the first big on-line applications. A second edition appeared in 2004 from Westview Press with some minor updates.

A History of Modern Computing (1998), by Paul Ceruzzi

This is the other main history of the computer. More technical in its approach than Campbell-Kelly & Aspray, with less emphasis on business application and continuities with pre-computer technologies. However, it does feature good treatment of computer architecture and DEC - which makes a strong case for the minicomputer as the precursor of modern personal computing. A second edition recently appeared, strengthening coverage of the 1990s.

Software History Bibliography, by the Charles Babbage Institute

The online CBI software history bibliography includes references to monographs, journal articles, reports, oral histories, and archival collections relating to the history of software.

J.A.N. Lee, Computer Pioneers (1995), by J.A.N. Lee

Biographies and obituaries of leading figures. Currently out of print and almost impossible to find second hand, though a library near you probably has a copy.

A History of Computing Technology (1985), by Michael Williams

Well produced, technical history of computation from scientific perspective. There is now a second edition.

Computer Hardware and the Computer Industry

IBM's Early Computers (1986), by Charles Bashe et al.

Written by a team of IBM insiders, this history is exhaustively researched, detailed and clearly written. There is no better guide to the computers of the 1950s. Currently out of print. A companion book, IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems, by several of the same authors, covers similar ground for the 1960s.

To The Digital Age (2002), by Ross Knox Bassett

Most books about the personal computer era have tended to take the underlying hardware technologies for granted. This book tells the story of the development of MOS transistors, their integration onto silicon chips, and the creation of the microprocessor. It uses interviews and archival documents to discuss the contributions of Fairchild, IBM, and Intel. Bassett makes a particular effort to trace the transfer of ideas between firms, and to tie the dramatically different fortunes of IBM and Intel in turning research into products to their different cultures and internal organizations.

User Driven Innovation: The World's First Business Computer (1996), edited by David Caminer, John Aris, Peter Hermon, and Frank Land

A collection of articles, written by the participants, on the origins of the world's first administrative computer (a London tea shop company), its commercialization as a spin-off company (LEO Computers) and its fate.

ICL: A Technical and Business History (1989), by Martin Campbell-Kelly

Covers more than the title suggests, because ICL's origins lay in the punched card era and it represented the merger of almost the entire UK hardware industry. Currently out of print.

Before the Computer: IBM, Burroughs and Remington Rand and the Industry they Created, 1865-1956 (1993), by James Cortada

The main history of the pre-computer office machine industry. Charts the shifting fortune of adding machine, typewriter, bookkeeping machine companies - full of facts and figures. Argument is that computer business evolved out of existing office machine industry.

Accidental Empires (New York, 1996), by Robert Cringley

A history of microcomputer industry from the mid-70s to the very early 90s.Far from academic in its methodology and writing style, but probably more fun to read than any other book ever written on computing. Beneath the folksy exterior and focus on personalities are some vital questions about architecture and technological evolution that historians and economists are yet to really address. And he actually relates the quirks of his subjects to the strategies and fortunes of the businesses they shape.

The Soul of a New Machine (1981), by Tracy Kidder (start here)

Only history because it's old, but still impossible to overlook. This Pulitzer prize winner is the inside story of the development of a late-1970s minicomputer. Kidder captures the excitement of technological creation, the culture of computer hackers and the gulf between corporate politics and technical striving better than anyone since. It's also a primer on mini-computer design and the computer industry of the era.

Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and its Technologies (1994), by Emerson Pugh

A less technical, more general history of IBM and its computers from the creation of the tabulating machine to the crisis of the early 1990s. Based on the IBM archives.

James S Small, The Analogue Alternative: The Electronic Analogue Computer in Britain and the USA, 1930-1975 (2001), by James Small

The first comprehensive history of analog computers and computing, an important electronic precursor to modern programmable digital computers. Small shows that the analog computer industry developed alongside the early digital computer industry and remained vibrant well into the 1960s for scientific, technical and control purposes.

"IBM and its Imitators: Organizational Capabilities and the Emergence of the International Computer Industry," by Steven Usselman. Business History Review 22:1 (Spring 1993): 1-35.

An interesting, analytical article about the institutional development of IBM, its relationship to the broader environment, and a comparison with its competitors in other countries.

The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence (2001), by John Vardalas.

A history of computing in Canada, from the Second World War though to the 1980s. One major theme is the role of military policy in shaping the development of Canadian computing, another is the related push to nurture a self-sufficient computer industry. Essential readings for Canadians, but also of more general interest as a contrast with the US story, particularly because important influences that are often overlooked in the US context become much more apparent here.

Father, Son & Co: My Life at IBM and Beyond (New York, 1990), by Thomas Watson, Jr. and Peter Petre.  (start here)

Watson led IBM to dominance of the computer business during the 1960s, succeeding his father who created the firm. This fascinating biography, produced with a skilled ghostwriter, provides perhaps the most readable introduction to the punched card and mainframe business and provides and insider viewpoint of key moments in its development.

Programming Languages, Software, and the Software Industry

"Voluntarism and the Fruits of Collaboration," by Atsushi Akera. Technology and Culture 42:4 (October 2001): 710-36.

SHARE was a voluntary organization of large IBM scientific computing installations. It set up a shared library of systems and utility software, and attempted to coordinate the production of the first standard operating system for IBM machines. This has interesting parallels (and differences) with today's open source software movement.

Software Pioneers: Contributions to Software Engineering (2002), edited by Manfred Broy, and Ernst Denert

Another book based on a conference. This one even includes DVDs of the speeches. In an unusual format, the book is split between often interesting speeches made during the conferences by the pioneers themselves, giving a retrospective view of their accomplishments, and reprints of their crucial original papers. "Software Engineering" is very broadly defined, so as well as the obvious suspects such as Tom DeMarco, Michael Jackson, Fred Brooks and Barry Boehm, the conference included the likes of Peter Chen, David L. Parnas, Niklaus Wirth, Friedrich L. Bauer, and Alan Kay.

From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry (2003), by Martin Campbell-Kelly (start here)

The first overall history of the software industry, and a very good one too. Software is given a suitably broad interpretation here, to include computer services and timesharing firms in the 1960s and 1970s (though not more recently), as well as packaged applications and systems software. Mainframe and microcomputer software (including games and personal titles) are all covered. However, this is a history of the software industry and not of software itself, or, for the most part, of its usage.

Mapping the History of Computing: Software Issues (2002), edited by Ulf Hashagen, Reinhard Keil-Slawik, and Arthur L. Norberg

The proceedings of a workshop at which an eminent group of historians and computer scientists got together to examine different ways of thinking about the history of software ("as science", "as engineering" etc.) and to try and come up with a research agenda for the future. Lengthy comments and discussion summaries are included as well as the papers themselves. Many of the papers related to software engineering, in one way or another.

Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and Iconoclasts--The Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution (2001), by Steve Lohr  (start here)

Much better than the cheesy title suggests, this book relies heavily on interviews (Lohr's and existing oral histories) to retell the origins of the most famous programming systems, from FORTRAN to GNU. Some of these stories have been done to death already (Xerox PARC) but many remain fresh (credit goes for including Visual Basic along with the more theoretically respectable developments). Does a good job of explaining why each one was important and what was novel about it, but doesn't tell you much about what people actually did with these systems once they were released -- in terms of either applications or experiences.

History of Programming Languages (1981), edited by Richard L Wexelblat; History of Programming Languages II (1996), edited by Thomas J Bergin, and Rick G Gibson

Based on the proceedings of a seminar bringing together the creators of languages such as FORTRAN and BASIC to tell stories about the creation and subsequent evolution of these languages. Each session was devoted to a single language. The strength of this kind of thing is in presenting a fairly polished set of memoirs, and sometimes capturing discussion and disagreement. The second volume, and corresponding seminar, covers newer languages such as C++, LISP, ADA, SMALLTALK and PASCAL. TOC at http://www.csis.american.edu/tbergin/pubs/programming.html.

Interactive and Personal Computing

Bootstrapping: Douglas Engelbart, Coevolution, and the Origins of Personal Computing (2000), by Thierry Bardini (start here)

Despite the occasional distracting theoretical flourish (Bardini teaches communications, not history) this is a clearly written, involving and solidly researched look at a previously hazy chapter in computer history. It sets Doug Engelbart's invention of the mouse in the broader context of his 60s Californian philosophy, the institutional history of his research group, and the development of computer technology.

Dealers of Lightening: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (1999), by Michael Hiltzik

The story of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center is one of the most famous in the history of computing. During the mid-1970s a fairly small team invented Ethernet and the laser printer, while building the first modern windowing system (inventing icons and greatly improving mouse control and windows) and making huge strides in object oriented programming. Having been handed the key ingredients of a late-1980s workstation about a decade early, Xerox then conspicuously failed to dominate the computer industry, though it did make some money on laser printers. This book is most thorough account of the PARC story, and while neither exceptionally readable nor exceptionally insightful it still tells a fascinating tale.

Hackers: The Heroes of the Digital Revolution (1984), by Steven Levy (start here)

Levy, a journalist, tells the story of three crucial chapters in the evolution of interactive computing: the obsessive MIT hacker programmers of the 1960s, the personal computer hardware enthusiasts of the 1970s, and the videogame developers of the 1980s. The final section now seems only mildly consequential, but remains quite interesting. The first two sections are extraordinarily vivid and insightful accounts, doing a great job of getting at the motivations and cultures of these influential enthusiasts. His codification of "hacker culture" has been a major influence on today's free software movement (hacker in this sense comes from MIT traditions, and has little to do with breaking into computers).

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), by Fred Turner (start here)

The strange trajectory of libertarian computer utopianism runs from the communes of the 1960s through the alternative technology movement and Whole Earth Catalog of the 1970s to the Toefflerian Third Wave rhetoric of the 1980s and its breakthrough to the mainstream with Wired Magazine and Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s. After a glorious flowering in the days of the dot com revolution it withered abruptly with the events of 2001. Elements of the story had been discussed before, but nothing of a substantial or scholarly nature appeared until the publication of Brand's book. He takes as his central figure Stewart Brand, the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, creator the celebrated WELL online community, and one of the founders of Wired Magazine. This focus gives the book a clear frame within which to sketch the communities through which Brand passed. Well researched and elegantly written, this is an exemplary examination of the ideological dimensions of computerization.

The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal (2001), by Mitch Waldrop (start here)

A big sprawling book. Waldrop uses Licklider, an experimental psychologist with a vision of man-machine interaction who controlled DARPA's computing research funding during the early 1960s, as a vehicle to structure a much broader story about the development of interactive computing. He starts with the Second World War, and takes in cybernetics, artificial intelligence, timesharing operating systems, the Arpanet, and the famous research at Xerox PARC. The style is readable and journalistic, so this would be a nice introduction to the topic. The paperback version has a truly dreadful cover, but don't let that put you off.

Communication and Control Systems

Inventing the Internet (Cambridge, MA, 1999), by Janet Abbate (start here)

Still the only full-length scholarly history of the emergence of the Internet. Reliable, concise and clearly written. Looks at the origins of packet-switching technology, the creation of ARPANET, the transition to TCP/IP, and the uses made of the system by academic researchers. Although there is a brief discussion of the web and the commercialization of the Internet is something of an afterthought to the focus on the Internet as a scientific network.

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1996), by Paul Edwards (start here)

Very readable. Includes history of SAGE air defense network, draws parallels with SDI. Shows military origins of real-time computing, networks and other technologies. Edwards looks at broader cultural and political issues, and adopts a cultural studies sensibility in including discussion of science fiction films as well as military systems.

Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics (2002), by David Mindell

Excellent and complicated treatment of the prehistory of computing, focusing on real-time control and communication technologies during WWII and the preceding couple of decades. These include feedback and communications engineering, naval fire control, guidance technologies, differential analyzers and anti-aircraft systems. Each is situated within a specific tradition of engineering practice, but collectively they lay the groundwork for many of the better known post-1945 developments in computing. More details in my review, http://www.tomandmaria.com/Tom/Writing/MindellReview.pdf.

The Victorian Internet (1999), by Tom Standage

A short, readable book summarizing the social and business history of telegraphy and making unashamedly (the author is a journalist) presentist comparisons with the Internet. It's nicely done, and might provide a good reading for an undergraduate course.

Business and Administrative Applications

"Engineers or Managers? The Systems Analysis of Electronic Data Processing in the Federal Bureaucracy," by Atsushi Akera. In Systems, Experts, and Computers : The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After, ed. Agatha C Hughes and Thomas P Hughes, 191-220. (Cambridge, MA, 2000).

A nice case study of early attempts by members of the National Bureau of Standards to use expertise in computer technology and knowledge of the techniques of "systems analysis" to assert broader control over administrative computing across the Federal government.

The Government Machine (2003), by John Agar

This history is the first to really explore the use made of the computer and other information technologies by government. The book surveys a very broad range of developments in British government, from Babbage and his famously unbuilt machines, through the much less well known stories of government statistical work, punched card machine use, operations and methods experts, information handling during the Second World War, and computerization during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Digital Hand (3 volume, Oxford, 2003, 2005, 2007), by James Cortada

In this epic three part work, Cortada gives concise histories of dozens of industries, focusing on the changing use made within them of digital computing technologies. The scope is impressive, and he provides comprehensive footnotes so the books could also be pressed into service as bibliographies. Could be a very useful starting point for detailed examination of computer use in a particular industry.

"The Railway Clearing House and Victorian Data Processing," by Martin Campbell-Kelly. In Lisa Bud-Frierman, ed. Information Acumen: The Understanding and Use of Knowledge in Modern Business (London, 1994).

A nice case study of how a large scale administrative system functioned long before the introduction of the computer.

A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present (2000), by Alfred Chandler and James Cortada

This hefty anthology is an attempt to explore information as a theme in US History. The focus is on information considered broadly, rather than just the computer, and so the book includes discussion of the U.S. Post Office, radio, telegraphy and so on. The treatment of computer and precursor technologies is the context of business applications, with Yates and Cortada providing chapters summarizing their main ideas.

"The Chromium-Plated Tabulator: Institutionalizing an Electronic Revolution, 1954-1958," by Thomas Haigh, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 23:4 (October-December 2001): 75-104; "Inventing Information Systems: The Systems Men and the Computer, 1950-1968," by Thomas Haigh, Business History Review 75:1 (Spring 2001): 15-61

No book has yet been published to tell the overall story of computer use by American businesses, so I will shamelessly recommend two of my own papers. The former examines the first wave of computer use in business administration, including the processes by which the machines were brought and sold, continuities with earlier punched card applications, and the new jobs and departments created around them. It is available online at http://www.tomandmaria.com/Tom/Writing/Chromium-PlatedTabulator.pdf. The latter examines the redefinition, during the 1960s, of the computer as a tool for "information systems" rather than "data processing", and the role of computer manufacturers and experts in administrative methods of popularizing a new ideal of management by computer. It is available online at http://www.tomandmaria.com/Tom/Writing/InventingInformationSystems.htm.

Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (1989), by JoAnne Yates

This book deals with the late 19th century and the first few years of the 20th, so address the computer at all. It is, however, a well-researched and readable history of the introduction and use of earlier administrative technologies such as files, adding machines, typewriters, carbon paper and memoranda. These are the things that, one by one, the computer has replaced. The first part covers the technologies; the second part gives case studies.

Structuring the Information Age: Life Insurance and Technology in the Twentieth Century (2005), by JoAnne Yates (start here)

In the first really solidly researched history of computer use in a specific industry, Yates follows automatic data processing technology use within the life insurance industry from the first use of punched card machines around 1900 through the spread and evolution of punched card machines in the first half of the century and the arrival of the first three generations of computers from the 1950s to the 1970s. She does a great job of relating the technology to the details of the insurance business, exploring the process by which firms acquired and attempted to shape punched card machines, and documenting early interactions between life insurance companies and computer vendors. The book is very readable and does not assume previous detailed knowledge of the history of computer technology.

Scientific Computing

Calculating a Natural Word: Scientists, Engineers, and Computers During the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research (2006), by Atsushi Akera (start here)

Akera's book on the institutional development of American computing during the early Cold War runs from the ENIAC project of the 1940s to the emergence of computer science as an academic field in the campus computing centers of the 1960s. In between it visits computing early computing efforts at the National Bureau of Standards, at MIT (Project Whirlwind) and inside IBM. Everything is based on extensive archival research, meaning that each chapter is deeply grounded in its specific institutional and historical context. But this also means that topics and questions shift abruptly between chapters. Akera's unifying framework is an argument about the understanding of technological practices within "ecologies of knowledge" (a topic explored more generally by Akera in a 2007 Science Studies article). Akera ensures that his case studies remain perfectly accessible even to those with little interest in science studies theory.

Computing Before Computers (1990), edited by William Aspray

This collection provides a readable introduction to the various computer technologies used for scientific calculation before the spread of the digital electronic computer, including analog computers and punched card machines. It is now out of print, but the full text is online at http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/CBC.html.

John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing (1990), by William Aspray

Rather than try and cover the whole of Von Neumann's life, Aspray uses an examination of his contributions during the 1940s and 1950s to computer design, numerical analysis, computing theory and several other areas as a window into the broader history of computing and applied mathematics during this period.

The History of Mathematical Tables: From Sumer to Spreadsheets (2003), edited by Martin Campbell-Kelly, Mary Croarken, R Flood, and E Robson

Mathematical tables might not sound so thrilling, but they were one of the main items driving the development of scientific computing technology and techniques during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This book, based on a conference but very nicely edited and produced, provides concise, readable and authoritative introductions to a number of topics including Babbage and his engines, large scale table-making efforts in the UK and in the USA, and the production of nautical and astronomical tables. Most of the authors are professionally trained historians.

Early Scientific Computing in Britain (1990), by Mary Croarken

A concise history of British computation, focusing on the development of different computing centers and their use of mechanical and electronic aids. It begins in the early twentieth century, moves through the introduction of differential analyzers, and finishes with the Second World War and the electronic computers of the immediate post-War era. No such overall history has yet been published on the US story over the same period.

"The World in a Machine: Origins and Impacts of Early Computerized Global Systems Models," by Paul Edwards. In Systems, Experts, and Computers : The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After, ed. Agatha C Hughes and Thomas P Hughes, 221-53 (Cambridge, MA, 2000).

Edwards should soon be publishing a book on the use of computers to model the world's atmosphere, climate and other "dynamics" something initially viewed as vital application though it proved much harder to do and more limited than expected, eventually providing the big clich?© of chaos theory (you know, the one about the butterfly flapping its wing and making a storm). Until the book arrives, you can read this early presentation of some of the material. Edwards has helpfully placed it online at http://www.si.umich.edu/~pne/PDF/wiam.pdf.

The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann, by Herman H Goldstein (Princeton, NJ, 1972).

Mixes the early history of calculating devices with an insider's perspective on the development of the computers of the 1940s and 1950s.

When Computers were Human (2006), by David Alan Grier (start here)

This very readable book tells the story of intensive manual scientific computation, from the 1800s to the immediate aftermath of World War II. Grier focuses on the United States, with occasional forays to the UK and Europe. There is not a great deal of mathematical theory in the book, or even much on the actual practices of computation. The stress is rather on the human and institutional stories, which Grier tells deftly.

"When Computers Were Women," by Jennifer Light. Technology and Culture 40, no. 3 (July 1999): 455-83

The initial programmers and operators of the ENIAC, the first usable electronic digital computer, were largely women. In this paper, Light tells their story and examines their disappearance from the official record.

A History of Scientific Computing (1990), edited by Stephen Nash

This edited publication based on a conference (the proceedings of which are available to members in the ACM Digital Library). The book is unobtainable at present (mid-2004), but should soon be appearing online, hosted by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. It consists mostly of first-person accounts by pioneers in scientific computing and numerical analysis.

A Bibliographic Guide to Resources in Scientific Computing, 1945-1975 (2002), by Jeffrey Yost

An annotated list of more than a thousand primary and secondary sources (books, articles and archival papers) related to different kinds of scientific computing. These are grouped according to the main area of science (physical sciences, biological sciences, cognitive science, and medicine). As this is such a huge topic, and this is quite a slim book, it's inevitably far from complete, but it might point to some good first steps for student research projects.

Computer Science and Research

"Arming American Scientists: NSF and the Provision of Scientific Computing Facilities for Universities, 1950-73," by William Aspray and Bernard O. Williams, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 16:4 (Winter 1994): 60-74;  "Was Early Entry a Competitive Advantage? US Universities That Entered Computing in the 1940s," by William Aspray, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 22:3 (July-September 2000): 42-87

Nobody has ever written a book giving the overall history of computer science as an academic discipline. One avenue would be to focus on the intellectual content of computer science, particularly theoretical computer science, and examine its connection with other disciplines such as mathematics and engineering. Another would be to look more sociologically at the institutional development of journals, departments, and funding sources in the new field. In these two articles, Aspray takes the latter approach and fills in important parts of this history.

Alan Turing: The Engima of Intelligence (1983), by Alan Hodges

An excellent biography of the founding father of computer theory. Very long, but has drawn wide public interest, partly by making Turing a gay hero, and partly by documenting his wartime work cracking the German Enigma code, an inherently exciting chapter in the history of computing.

Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon, 1962-1986 (1996), by Arthur L. Norberg and Judy E. O'Neill

A history of ARPA's celebrated work in supporting the development of seminal computer science research during the 1960s and 1970s. The style is dry, but the material is fascinating. Different chapters explore work in computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and networking (ARPA was responsible for creating ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet).

Strategic Computing: DARPA and the Quest for Machine Intelligence (2002), by Alex Roland and Philip Shiman

This volume covers the efforts of DARPA leaders of the 1980s to shackle together an unrelated mass of apparently promising areas of basic research and sell them to Congress as an applied development effort in military applications. As well as being a fascinating case study in the interaction of computer science research with government agencies and military priorities, it also documents some important areas of recent history, particularly the push for a "fifth generation," and attempts to push technologies for natural language recognition, machine vision and expert systems into practical applications.

Mechanizing Proof (2001), by Donald MacKenzie

MacKenzie is an historically minded sociologist of science and technology, who likes to work be getting deep inside the technical discussions of the community he is studying. This book is a series of case studies, all exploring different aspects of the relationship between computer technology and mathematical proof. Some chapters explore use of computers to produce mathematical proofs, such as the Four Color Problem. Most of the book, however, examines attempts to formally prove the correctness of hardware and software, an important research area in theoretical computer science from the 1960s onward, and a task actually attempted for some real-world military systems.

"Software as Science--Science as Software," by Michael Mahoney. In Mapping the History of Computing: Software Issues, ed. Ulf Hashagen, Reinhard Keil-Slawik and Arthur L. Norberg, 25-48 (New York, 2002).

Among other things, this complex paper is a discussion of the emergence of theoretical computer science from various obscure areas of mathematics.

Funding A Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research (1999), by National Research Council

A blue ribbon science panel produced a study showing the influence of government support on the development of computer science, hardware and software. The full text is on-line at http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/far/contents.html .

Other Kinds of Resources

Historigraphy on History of Computing

Historical books and articles generally do not include distinct literature reviews of the kind mandated for work in many academic disciplines. Sometimes historians do attempt to sum up the shape of a particular field in a review essay. This kind of work is known as historiography.

Histories of Computing (2011), by Michael Mahoney, edited and with an introduction by Thomas Haigh

Mahoney published the most influential and widely cited artciles about the history of computing, most notably his 1988 article "The History of Computing in the History of Technology." Mahoney's most perceptive question was perhaps "What is the history of computing the history of?" His papers on the topic are collected here, along with his writings on the history of software and theoretical computer science.

"Understanding 'How Computing Changed the World'," by Thomas Misa. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing no. 29 (4):52-63.

A distinguished historian of technology, Misa wrote the article soon after taking over as director of the Charles Babbage Institute. He surveys the existing literature, and calls for more attention to the use and consequences of computer technology.

"The History of Information Technology," by Thomas Haigh. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology no. 45 (2011):431-487.

A broad and voluminous review of the history of computing literature, based in part on an earlier version of this resource guide. There is an online preprint available.

IEEE Annals of the History of computing publishes a "Think Piece" in each issue of the journal. These have showcased a variety of different approaches to the history of computing.


  • []. No attributation means Thomas Haigh
  • [M.H.]. Marie Hicks.
  • [J.S.]. James Sumner
  • [GCD] Gerardo Con Diaz

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