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Author: Dennis A. Trinkle
Title: Paul E. Ceruzzi's A History of Modern Computing
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 1999

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Source: Paul E. Ceruzzi's A History of Modern Computing
Dennis A. Trinkle

vol. 2, no. 2, August 1999
Article Type: Book Review

A History of Modern Computing

Dennis A. Trinkle


Ceruzzi, Paul E., A History of Modern Computing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998)

In 1948, the Harvard mathematician and builder of the Mark I calculator Howard Aiken strongly urged the National Bureau of Standards not to support the development of commercial computers. He famously, and myopically, predicted that there would never be a need for more than five or six computers in the United States. Five decades later, Aiken's prophecy seems ridiculous. Computers are ubiquitous. They are woven into the daily fabrics of life, from education to health care. For historians, the impact is commensurately profound—every dimension of the historian's craft is being altered by computing. Surprisingly, however, the story of computing has largely been explored and explained only by journalists and computer scientists. Despite the proximity of change and the platitude that historians study those dimensions of the past most relevant to their own times, professional historians have devoted little attention to the development of computing.

Paul E. Ceruzzi's A History of Modern Computing signals the end of this neglect. Ceruzzi is a curator for the National Air and Space Museum, and his History of Modern Computing is an ambitious attempt to relate the history of computing from 1945 to 1995. Since this is largely uncharted terrain, he has had to establish practical parameters for his investigation and analysis. The book's main focus is on the commercial computing systems created in the United States. It is foremost a technical history of the major devices in the development of computers, complete with a clear and concise primer for non-engineers on computer architecture. Ceruzzi's tale is not solely about machines, however. It explores the complex interactions between the individuals, groups, corporations, and government bodies that shaped their evolution. There are also brief discussions of programming, applications, and computing in Europe. Nevertheless, the author never ventures far from his interpretative emphasis.

Ceruzzi's thesis is broad and subtle. Avoiding the triumphalist stories and great man narratives that characterize most journalistic accounts of computing history, he argues that small moments of innovation in response to social, political, cultural, technological and economic conditions have propelled computer development. To make the complexity and elusiveness of this argument concrete, he begins the story simply: "Computers were invented to compute: to solve 'complex mathematical problems,' as the dictionary still defines that word. They still do that, but that is not why we are living in an 'Information Age.'" From those humble beginnings, he follows the progression of computing through four periods of "re-invention", which he argues have led to the Information Age. The first genesis came in 1948, when the National Bureau of Standard's ignored Aiken's guidance and supported the research which transformed the computer from a specialized scientific instrument into a commercial product during the late 1940s. Computers entered their second incarnation when IBM and its competitors transformed the large and expensive computers of the 40s and 50s into small, more affordable, systems in the late 1960s. The next watershed came with the birth of personal computing in 1970s, bringing computing prominently into the daily life of most Americans. Finally, the spread of networking after 1985 is identified as most recent shift that is continuing to radically redirect the development of computer systems. With Aiken in mind, Ceruzzi leaves speculation about where computing is headed to futurists.

Ceruzzi's history of computing will undoubtedly be long regarded as the seminal work in the field. He has mastered a deep and varied archival literature to write the first broad and defining account of computer history. Ironically, the germinal nature of the work leaves it open to wide criticism. Readers will undoubtedly complain about its tight focus on American computing, the relatively brief discussions of broad context and impact, the stress on computers to the exclusion of applications and peripherals, and the many other themes left unexplored. These are the wages of writing the first broad survey for a field. Ceruzzi could not possibly have written a comprehensive and exhaustive one-volume history of computing at this juncture without making hard choices. Fortunately, he made these choices and provided historians with a lucid, detailed, and compelling account of the birth and development of modern computing.

Ceruzzi can also perhaps tap the metaphors and operating procedures of his field. A History of Modern Computing 2.0 might well address many of these gaps, and countless beta versions of peripheral studies will certainly extend our knowledge in many directions and to deeper levels. Wherever computing history and the histories of computing go, however, Paul Ceruzzi will deserve much praise for fostering balanced, serious study of one of the twentieth century's defining technologies and icons.

Dennis A. Trinkle
DePauw University