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Author: Kregg M. Fehr
Title: James W. Cortada's Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2001
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Source: James W. Cortada's Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956
Kregg M. Fehr


vol. 4, no. 1, April 2001
Article Type: Book Review
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0004.121

James W. Cortada's Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956

Kregg M. Fehr

  • James W. Cortada. Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956. (Princeton Studies in Business and Technology.) Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1993. Pp. xx, 344. $55.00.

While James W. Cortada has remained professionally wedded to the business community, over the last decade he has built a significant portfolio as a talented lay-historian.  Instructors and students interested in the history of business and/or the history of computing are  familiar with his works. Cortada followed his early compilations of bibliographical information with the volume here under review, and since the release of Before the Computer, Cortada has written and secured the publication of yet another book, The Computer in the United States:   From Laboratory to Market, 1930-1960.

In both of his monographs, James Cortada attempts to discredit the idea that the computer industry was the result of some miraculous six-day (or several years) creation in the 1940s. He contends that today's computer businesses are the product of gradual and continuous evolution in the business community, the market, and in the technological realm. In his work, Before the Computer, Cortada marshals evidence that ties the digital computer industry to an earlier enterprise, what he terms the "office appliance industry." He demonstrates that typewriters, tabulators, and adding machines constituted essential technologies for a business's "processing" of "data" in the years before the advent of the computer.

Cortada further links the computer and business machine industries by examining numerous companies that first established reputations as office-appliance suppliers, but which later became leaders in the early manufacture and sale of computer systems. Cortada's histories of International Business Machine, National Cash Register, Burroughs, and Remington Rand constitute one of the main strengths of his book. At the macro level, he looks at the challenges posed to all corporate entities by fluctuations in the economy, two world wars, and the needs of a  growing industrial and business-oriented nation. At the micro level, he focuses on IBM and the other companies' management teams and the marketing strategies that they employed to seize and retain control of the office appliance industry. Having served for years as a marketing executive for IBM, Cortada brings to his text personal insights and the authority of experience, in addition to sound research in corporate archives.

twentieth centuries to the computer businesses of the mid-late twentieth century, but his work could be strengthened. First, the author should remind his audience that much of the last century's computer history can be traced to government agencies or to corporate entities—the office machine industry did not build the sole bridge to the "computer world" of today. Second, the book suffers from poor editing. The corporate histories of IBM, Rand and the others are fascinating, but often the reader gets lost in the details and loses the bigger picture. As my dissertation director used to say, "You can't see the forest for all the trees!" Cortada's work would be strengthened greatly by the presence of more rolling analysis. Further, not only did the editors fail to notice that the thesis was often buried in the text, they failed to catch and correct bad grammar, faulty sentence construction, and an exaggerated and overzealous attempt to use pluralistic language. Still, Before the Computer, is a good book, well-reasoned and authoritatively documented. It remains essential reading for any serious historian of the Computer Age.

Kregg M. Fehr

Lubbock Christian University

Kregg.Fehr@LCU.EDU