Sign In

Communications of the ACM

Historical Reflections

Becoming Universal

computers in clouds, illustration

Credit: Getty Images

How to fit the history of computing into a book that can be picked up without needing a forklift truck? That was my challenge in writing A New History of Modern Computing5 (hereafter the "new history") with Paul Ceruzzi. My previous book, ENIAC in Action6 explored a single computer. Now we had to tell the story of billions of them, drawing on the work of an ever-expanding research community to help us find a story hiding among all the model numbers.

I should be clear up front that this is an academic history of computing. Trade books are the ones that get stocked in bookstores, reviewed in newspapers, and so on. Their editors will select and rewrite manuscripts with a mass audience in mind. Trade publishers appear to have decided, perhaps correctly, the only way to sell books on the history of computing is to stuff them with people and stories that readers already know about while nevertheless insisting they are tragically forgotten. Their books feature a lot of Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, and other "geniuses." They obsess over the question of the "first computer" and spend a lot of time in the 1940s laboriously weighing evidence for the primacy of one invention or another before awarding the crown. Once computers are invented their authors lose interest in them. Popular histories that make it out of the 1940s tend to repeat the focus on invention with later innovations—the first personal computers, the first Web browser, and so on. In recent years the more forward-looking authors, like Walter Isaacson whose book The Innovators now dominates the market, have taken pains to include a few women geniuses, like Ada Lovelace, alongside the men.7


No entries found

Log in to Read the Full Article

Sign In

Sign in using your ACM Web Account username and password to access premium content if you are an ACM member, Communications subscriber or Digital Library subscriber.

Need Access?

Please select one of the options below for access to premium content and features.

Create a Web Account

If you are already an ACM member, Communications subscriber, or Digital Library subscriber, please set up a web account to access premium content on this site.

Join the ACM

Become a member to take full advantage of ACM's outstanding computing information resources, networking opportunities, and other benefits.

Subscribe to Communications of the ACM Magazine

Get full access to 50+ years of CACM content and receive the print version of the magazine monthly.

Purchase the Article

Non-members can purchase this article or a copy of the magazine in which it appears.