Archive for November, 2009

How little they know …..

November 18, 2009

Yesterday I attended an excellent workshop in writing good applications for externally funded research projects af the IT University. Here a short abstract intended for the general public and the non-specialist reviewer is key. We did a useful exercise on this in pairs: First we told each other about a current research project in a few minutes, then we asked three questions about the projects, and finally we wrote a 10-15 line abstract about the project of our mate. Very good exercise, by the way. I told my mate about my project on the role of the IBM 3270 screen terminal (anno 1972) in the transistion from batch processing to online computer processing in the 1970s and 1980s. My mate was an extremely bright and knowledgeable computer scientist in his thirties. It turned out – quite late in the process – that he thought that batch processing was command-line-based interaction as known from DOS.

How little they know about the history of computing …. and therefore: How important it is we address this field!!

Hence I better explain what I’m talking about: Batch processing, dating back to the 1960s–1980s, is [typically] typing your program off-line on a deck of cards, handing the the deck in at a counter, waiting 2-8 hours while your program is being run on a huge, central mainframe computer, and picking up your print on a shelf near the counter. Online processing is having a display terminal, typically on your desk, connected to a central computer. You interact directly with the computer system with a response time of typically 1-10 seconds.

So thanks, mate!


window vs. windows

November 5, 2009

In may talk at the recent SHOT conference in Pittsburgh I argued that the user interface is a worthy object of historical inquiries. It is old, it is well known, it is widespread, and it carries some interesting stories that mirror the developments in society. In order to push my point forward I got the idea to search for window and for windows using Google Image.

What do you think the outcome is?

Do the searches deliver images of windows in houses?

Or do they deliver a certain Microsoft product?

Yes and no. window yields exclusively house-windows – one might thinks that window in plural yield even more house windows! No so. windows yield exclusively images associated with Microsoft Windows: about half are Windows brand icons while the other half are the Windows user interface – the well known screen image. I find that this modest informal investigation can be taken as a strong  indication of the strength of footprint of the user interface in our culture.

By the way, what do you think happens when you do a similar search for apple and apples ,-/

Google image search for window and windows – first four hits




Two local collections in Denmark

November 4, 2009

I’ve recently come across two local computer history collections in Denmark. The first collection is at SDU – Southern University of Denmark – where farsighted employees over the years have collected computers, hardware and other items. The collection encompasses the first IBM pc from 1981 (in working order!), several Apple Lisas (even one including the original cardboard box) – see the pics below – and several Next computers. The collection is described in an article (in Danish!) in the local newspaper Fyens Stifttidende.

The collection has been established by Einar Hougs, Hans Boye, and A. Ormicki. I became aware of the collection through mathematician Bjarne Toft who has strong interest in Piet Hein’s games. Unfortunately, SDU no longer wants to host the collection; some of the items may be taken over by Dansk Datahistorisk Forening.
The other collection is in CSC – where historically interested former employees Jens Peter Søltoft, Carsten Laugesen, and Flemming Svane-Petersen have established an archive. It is based on documents and items gathered over the years by themselves and other employees. So far the three “curators” are looking for a suitable way to index the collectibles.

SHOT 2009 in Pittsburgh

November 4, 2009

SHOT – an acronym for Society of the History of Technology – held its annual meeting in Pittsburg from Oct. 15-18. The last day was dedicated to the late professor of history at Princeton Mike Mahoney who passed away last year. In the last decades he has done a tremendous effort to increase the interest in history of computing. [His excellent papers can be downloaded from his webpage.]

A full day with four sessions focussing exclusively on history of computers was organized by SIGCIS [Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society]. In the first, the three distinguished historians Bill Aspray, University of Texas at Austin, Thomas Haigh, University of Milwaukee, and Gerard Alberts, University of Amsterdam addressed various aspects of Mahoney’s life and work.

Aspray presented a personal account of Mahoney – at times moving, at times stunning, at times humourous – while Haigh focussed on the central contributions of Mahoney. It was interesting to see that Haigh had selected the same three papers out of Mahoney’s 19 papers on computer history as I had in my presentation “User Interface History – a Mahoneyan Perspective”.  In addition, Haigh used several of the same citations as I, for example regarding the state-of-art in history of computing in 1988: “There historians stand before the daunting complexity of a subject that has grown exponentially in size and variety, looking not so much like an unchartered ocean as like a trackless jungle. We pace on the edge, pondering where to cut in.” This quote describes precisely my situation in user interface history in 2009!

Nimbi in Weekendavisen

November 3, 2009

The recent issue of Weekendavisen – a highly respected Danish weekly newspaper – published an article in the Oct. 23-30 issue on the early game development project that featured my current colleague Søren Lauesen and the Danish poet, inventor and game developer Piet Hein. The article is in Danish and comes in part 1, pdf 2.4 MB and part 2, pdf 0.6 MB
The article – in Danish unfortunately – is based on my recent paper “Context and Driving Forces in the Development of the Early Computer Game Nimbi” in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. The paper can be downloaded from the post below.