Historyof Computing as History of Technology Consider, then, the history ofcomputing in light of current history of technology. Several lines of inquiryseem particularly promising. Studies such as those cited above offer a panoplyof models for tracing the patterns of growth and progress in computing as atechnology.
Technological improvement not only enters the structure of theeconomy through the main entrance, as when it takes the highly visible form ofmajor patentable technological breakthroughs, but that it also employs huge andless visible side and rear entrances where its arrival is unassuming,unannounced, unobserved, and uncelebrated” ? To determine whether what is the case thatwill require to makes changes in the history of computing as it is currentlypracticed. It will mean looking beyond “firsts” to the revisions andmodifications that made products work and that account for their real impact.Given the corporate, collaborative structure of modern R&D, historians of computing must followthe admonition once made to historians of technology to stop “substitutingbiography for careful analysis of social processes”.
Without denigratingthe role of heroes and pioneers, we need more knowledge of computing’sequivalent of “shop practices, theactivities of lower-level technicians in factories” . The question is howto pursue that inquiry across the variegated range of the emerging industry.Viewing computing both as a system in itself and as a component of a variety oflarger systems may provide important discernmentinto the dynamics of its development and may help to differentiate between itsinternal and its external history. For example, it suggests an approach to thequestion of the relation between hardware and software, often couched in theantagonistic form of one driving the other, a form which seems to assume thatthe two are relatively independent of one another. By contrast, linking them ina system emphasizes their mutual dependence. One expects of a system that therelationship among its internal components and their relationships to externalcomponents will vary over time and place but that they will do so in a way thatmaintains a certain equipoise or stability, even as the system itself evolves.
Seen in that light, the relation between hardware and software is a questionnot so much of driving forces, or of stimulus and response, as of constraintsand degrees of freedom. While in principle all computers have the samecapacities as universal Turing machines, in practice different architecturesare conducive to different forms of computing. Certain architectures havetechnical thresholds (e.g. VSLI is a prerequisite to massively parallelcomputing), others reflect conscious choices among equally feasiblealternatives; some have been influenced by the needs and concerns of softwareproduction, others by the special purposes of customers.
Early on, programminghad to conform to the narrow limits of speed and memory set by factors in theelectronics industry made it possible to expand those limits, and at the sametime drastically lowered the cost of hardware, programming could take practicaladvantage of research into programming languages and compilers. Researchers’ideas of multiuser systems, interactive programming, or virtual memory requiredadvances in hardware at the same time that they drew out the full power of anew generation of machines. Just as new architectures have challengedestablished forms of programming, so too theoretical advances in computationand artificial intelligence have suggested new ways of organizing processors.
Atpresent, the evolution of computing as a system and of its interfaces withother systems of thought and action has yet to be uncover.Indeed, it is notclear how many recognized systemsconstitute computing itself, given the manifold contexts in which it hasdeveloped. We speak of the computer industry as if it were a monolith ratherthan a network of interdependent industries with separate interests andconcerns. In addition to historically more analytical studies of individualfirms, both large and small, we need analyses of their interaction andinterdependence. The same holds for government and academia, neither of whichhas spoken with one voice on matters of computing.
Of particular interest heremay be the system-building role of the computer in constructing new links of interdependence amonguniversities, government, and industry after World War II. Arguing in “TheBig Questions” that creators of the machinery underpinning the AmericanSystem worked from a knowledgeof the entire sequence of operations inproduction,12 Daniels in 1970 pointed to Peter Drucker’s suggestion that”the organization of work be used as a unifying concept in the history oftechnology.” The recent volume by on IBM’s Early Computers illustratesthe potential fruitfulness of that suggestion for the history of computing. Intracing IBM’s adaptation to the computer, they bring out the corporate tensionsand adjustments introduced into IBM by the need to keep abreast of fast-breakingdevelopments in science and technology and in turn to share its research withothers.The computer reshaped R at IBM, defining new relations betweenmarketing and research, introducing a new breed of scientific personnel withnew ways of doing things, and creating new roles, in particular that of theprogrammer. Whether the same holds true of, say, Bell Laboratories or G.E.
Research Laboratories, remains to be studied, as does the structure of theR institutions established by the many new firms that constituted thegrowing computer industry of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Tracy Kidder’s in1981,the frankly journalistic account of development at Data General has givenus a glimpse of the patterns we may find. Equally important will be studies ofthe emergence of the data-processing shop, whether as an independent computerservice or as a new element in established institutions.
14 More than onecompany found that the computer reorganized de facto the lines ofeffective managerial power.The computer seems an obvious place to look forinsight into the question of whether new technologies respond to need or createit.