cmalek has sent us a review of Paul E. Cerruzi's A History Of Moderning Computing, which delves into the past of the machines we use today. To read more about your computer's ancestors, click below.In 1951, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation brought into the world the UNIVAC, an event which marks the real beginning of our computer and information age. This was not the first "computer" of course; the ENIAC (which Eckert and Mauchly had built during the Second World War) was the first stored program electronic computer. As well, such electro-mechanical calculators as the Mark I, the Zuse Z machines, the ABC had all preceeded it. UNIVAC, however, was created in a fundamentally different spirit than its predecessors, which were used exclusively by government funded military agencies and scientists: it was meant to be sold as a commodity.
In 1948, hearing of Eckert and Mauchly's plans, Howard Aiken (builder of Harvard's Mark I) said that computers would never be a marketable product, since in the U.S., only a handful of them would find use. He was wrong: by 1953, businesses (who could afford one) as well as government agencies were lining up for them, and when they got them, the machines changed the way they processed data. IBM, seeing early in UNIVAC a threat to their punched card tabulator business, responded by announcing the IBM 701 in 1952, and the modern computer age and computer industry had taken its first tentative steps.
In A History of Modern Computing, Paul E. Ceruzzi, Curator of the Department of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum, weaves the fascinating tale of computing in the United States between 1945 and 1995, and "woven" is an appropriate adjective for this book. He takes the standpoint that a technology cannot be viewed in isolation: it must be taken as one participant in a complex system. He calls this philosophy "social construction:" technology evolves as the result of pressures from many interacting forces in society, and in turn causes the society itself to evolve, thus changing the evolutionary pressures on the technology.
It is the evolution of this system, not merely the technology in it, that Ceruzzi is concerned with in A History of Modern Computing. As we watch the computer change from scientific instrument to commercial product, see the emergence of first mainframes, then minicomputers, and finally the personal computer, Cerruzi shows how this development was affected by many forces, of which the following are but a few: IBM, Digital, GE and the Seven Dwarves; NASA, the military and other government agencies; the Cold War, the space race, and the 60's counterculture. We also see how these are all, in turn, affected by computers.
The influence of NASA's Manned Space Program in the 1960's is illustrative of this interaction at work. At the time, computing was done exclusively by batch processing -- a series of jobs run in succession, without human intervention. Computers were simply too costly to run for most sites to allow users direct interactive access -- a typical system rented for $20,000 - $40,000 per month, with a purchase price in the millions. The Manned Space Program, with its essentially unlimited budgets, and its 1970 deadline to put a man on the Moon, was one place at which such real-time computing was not only cost feasible, but necessary (in order to quickly determine whether the orbit resulting from a launch would be stable, or whether the mission should be aborted, for example).
Working with several generations of IBM mainframes, and with the help of IBM engineers, NASA evolved their own software, a real-time system called Mercury Monitor, into a powerful real-time extension of the IBM/360 operating system, which was soon adopted by other commercial installations. By the early 1970's, this modified OS became a fully supported IBM product. Most importantly,
"These modifications of [the IBM/360 OS] could not have happened without the unique nature of the Apollo mission .... Such modifications were not even permitted by IBM for most other customers, who typically leased and did not own equipment. NASA's modifications did show that a large commercial mainframe could operate in other than batch mode." (p 124)
The book is well illustrated, with many images of computers and people, and these illustrations add much to text. It is aimed at a general audience, and the prose reads well and easily. At 312 pages of text, Ceruzzi manages to pack in a satisfying level of detail without overwhelming the reader. It is not a highly technical book; those seeking to know details about how each computer worked will be disappointed. Ceruzzi does not shirk the technical aspects: he is simply more interested in the impact of a technology rather than its workings. For those so inclined, it is well footnoted, and the footnotes are well worth reading. It also has an extensive bibliography.
One drawback that some may see is that this is a history of computing in the United States, and even though there was work being done in other countries, notably England and Japan, this is only touched upon briefly. He does warn you that he's going to do this, however. And because I know it's going to come up, no, there is no mention of Linux, or Linus Torvalds, or Richard Stallman, or free software. He does have a whole chapter on UNIX and networked computers, however.
Ceruzzi also emphasizes real-world practical applications of ideas, and the role of university-based computer science research is largely left out. He is also a bit brief and somewhat vague about the years leading up to the creation of UNIVAC. For example, while he does mention the Mark I, and Howard Aiken, he fails to mention that it was in fact IBM who constructed the machine under Aiken's direction, and that the idea of the computer was not new to them with the 701. Finally, for a book published in 1998, the fact that only 8 pages are spent on the Internet and its implications is a bit odd.
In total, however, A History of Modern Computing serves as a worthy companion to other books published already (such as A History of Computing Technology, Williams, 1985 and The Computer From Pascal to Von Neumann, Goldstine, 1972), and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in learning how computing in the United States arrived in its current state.
Pick this book at at Amazon.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Defining "Computer"
1. The Advent of Commercial Computing, 1945-1956
2. Computing Comes of Age, 1956-1964
3. The Early History of Software, 1952-1968
4. From Mainframe to Minicomputer, 1959-1969
5. The Go-Go Years and the System/360, 1961-1975
6. The Chip and Its Impact, 1965-1975
7. The Personal Computer, 1972-1977
8. Augmenting Human Intellect, 1975-1985
9. Workstations, UNIX, and the Net, 1981-1995
Conclusion: The Digitization of the World Picture