The Computer Boys Take Over

The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise

Nathan Ensmenger
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Computer Boys Take Over
    Book Description:

    This is a book about the computer revolution of the mid-twentieth century and the people who made it possible. Unlike most histories of computing, it is not a book about machines, inventors, or entrepreneurs. Instead, it tells the story of the vast but largely anonymous legions of computer specialists--programmers, systems analysts, and other software developers--who transformed the electronic computer from a scientific curiosity into the defining technology of the modern era. As the systems that they built became increasingly powerful and ubiquitous, these specialists became the focus of a series of critiques of the social and organizational impact of electronic computing. To many of their contemporaries, it seemed the "computer boys" were taking over, not just in the corporate setting, but also in government, politics, and society in general. In The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger traces the rise to power of the computer expert in modern American society. His rich and nuanced portrayal of the men and women (a surprising number of the "computer boys" were, in fact, female) who built their careers around the novel technology of electronic computing explores issues of power, identity, and expertise that have only become more significant in our increasingly computerized society.In his recasting of the drama of the computer revolution through the eyes of its principle revolutionaries, Ensmenger reminds us that the computerization of modern society was not an inevitable process driven by impersonal technological or economic imperatives, but was rather a creative, contentious, and above all, fundamentally human development.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28935-1
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Introduction: Computer Revolutionaries
    (pp. 1-26)

    Chances are that you or someone close to you makes their living “working with computers.” In the decades since the 1950s, the technical specialists most directly associated with the electronic digital computer—computer programmers, systems analysts, and network and database administrators—have assumed an increasingly active and visible role in the shaping of our modern information society. All but the smallest organizations now have their own information technology departments filled with such specialists, and in many cases they represent some of the organization’s most valued—or at least most highly paid—employees. In the United States alone there are more...

  5. 2 The Black Art of Programming
    (pp. 27-50)

    One of the great myths of the computer revolution is that nobody saw it coming—particularly not the so-called computer experts. In one widely repeated but apocryphal anecdote, Thomas Watson, the legendary founder and longtime chair of the IBM Corporation, is said to have predicted as late as 1943 a total world market for “maybe five computers.” The story of this wildly inaccurate forecast, alternatively attributed to Watson, the Harvard professor and computing pioneer Howard Aiken, or the Cambridge professor of computer science Douglas Hartree, among others, is generally mobilized as a kind of modern morality play, a cautionary tale...

  6. 3 Chess Players, Music Lovers, and Mathematicians
    (pp. 51-82)

    The “Talk of the Town” column in theNew Yorkermagazine is not generally known for its coverage of science and technology. But in January 1957, the highbrow gossip column provided for its readers an unusual but remarkably prescient glimpse into the future of electronic computing. Already there were more than fifteen hundred of the electronic “giants” scattered around the United States, noted the column editors, with many more expected to be installed in the near future. Each of these computers required between thirty and fifty programmers, the “clever fellows” whose job it was to “figure out the proper form...

  7. 4 Tower of Babel
    (pp. 83-110)

    The first commercial electronic digital computers became available in the early 1950s. For a short period, the focus of most manufacturers was on the development of innovative hardware. Most of the users of these early computers were large and technically sophisticated corporations and government agencies. In the middle of the decade, however, users and manufacturers alike became increasingly concerned with the rising cost of software development. By the beginning of the 1960s, the origins of “software turmoil” that would soon become a full-blown software crisis were readily apparent.¹

    As larger and more ambitious software projects were attempted, and the shortage...

  8. 5 The Rise of Computer Science
    (pp. 111-136)

    The first computer programmers came from a wide variety of occupational and educational backgrounds. Some were recruited from the ranks of the female “human computers” who had participated in wartime manual computation projects. Others were former clerical workers or tabulating machine operators with experience in corporate data processing. A few were erstwhile scientists and engineers drawn into computing in pursuit of intellectual or professional opportunities.

    For this last group of well-educated “converts” to computing, it was not always clear where their adopted discipline stood in relation to more traditional intellectual activities. Although the electronic computers were increasingly used in this...

  9. 6 The Cosa Nostra of the Data Processing Industry
    (pp. 137-162)

    The 1957 filmDesk Setis best known to movie buffs as a lightweight but enjoyable romantic comedy, the eighth of nine pictures in which Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn acted together, and the first to be filmed in color. The film is generally considered frivolous yet enjoyable, not one of the famous pair’s best, though still popular and durable. The plot is fairly straightforward: Tracy, as Richard Sumner, is an efficiency expert charged with introducing computer technology into the reference library at the fictional Federal Broadcasting Network. There he encounters Bunny Watson, the Hepburn character, and her spirited troop...

  10. 7 The Professionalization of Programming
    (pp. 163-194)

    In 1962, the editors of the electronic data processing journalDatamationproposed what they believed would be the solution to the “many problems” that were “embarrassingly prominent” in the nascent commercial computing industry. The majority of these problems, they argued, were caused by the lack of “professional competency” among programming personnel. The recent explosive growth in commercial computing had brought with it a “mounting tide of inexperienced programmers, newborn consultants, and the untutored outer circle of controllers and accountants all assuming greater technical responsibility.” Few of these so-called computer experts were well qualified or experienced, and the result was the...

  11. 8 Engineering a Solution
    (pp. 195-222)

    In the collective memory of the programming community, the years between 1968 and 1972 mark a major turning point in the history of its industry and profession. It is during this period that the rhetoric of the crisis became firmly entrenched in the vernacular of commercial computing. Although there had been earlier concerns expressed about “software turmoil” and the “software gap,” it was not until 1968 that the word “crisis” began to be applied to the challenges facing the software industry. Within a few short years, the existence of a looming software crisis had been widely and enthusiastically embraced within...

  12. 9 Conclusions: Visible Technicians
    (pp. 223-244)

    In the closing minutes of the twentieth century, computer programmers around the world sat huddled around their computer screens, awaiting with bated breath the flip of a single digital bit. At stake was continued functioning of the millions of computerized systems that they and their fellow programmers had developed over the course of the previous half-century, many of them considered vitally important to the continued functioning of crucial infrastructure, both military and civilian. At midnight on December 31, 1999, it was widely believed, at least some of these systems would crash as a result of the inability of their internal...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 245-286)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-314)
  15. Index
    (pp. 315-320)