Histories of Computing

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Computer technology is pervasive in the modern world, its role ever more important as it becomes embedded in a myriad of physical systems and disciplinary ways of thinking. The late Michael Sean Mahoney was a pioneer scholar of the history of computing, one of the first established historians of science to take seriously the challenges and opportunities posed by information technology to our understanding of the twentieth century.

Mahoney’s work ranged widely, from logic and the theory of computation to the development of software and applications as craft-work. But it was always informed by a unique perspective derived from his distinguished work on the history of medieval mathematics and experimental practice during the Scientific Revolution. His writings offered a new angle on very recent events and ideas and bridged the gaps between academic historians and computer scientists. Indeed, he came to believe that the field was irreducibly pluralistic and that there could be only histories of computing.

In this collection, Thomas Haigh presents thirteen of Mahoney’s essays and papers organized across three categories: historiography, software engineering, and theoretical computer science. His introduction surveys Mahoney’s work to trace the development of key themes, illuminate connections among different areas of his research, and put his contributions into context. The volume also includes an essay on Mahoney by his former students Jed Z. Buchwald and D. Graham Burnett. The result is a landmark work, of interest to computer professionals as well as historians of technology and science.

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Editorial Reviews


Newcomers to Mahoney will find great value in this collection.
— M. Mounts

Charles Coulston Gillispie
Michael Sean Mahoney was first and foremost a historian of science and technology. He came to the history, or as he preferred to say, histories of computing from a thorough background in the development of early modern science and mathematics and of modern technology. More recently he achieved a command of computer science that enabled him to present it as growing out of aspects of the work, on the one hand, of Isaac Newton, Christiaan Huygens, and René Descartes and, on the other, of Henry Ford.
Willard McCarty
Even while its cultural influence spreads and develops, the computer remains a challenging enigma. It is one thing and many, a metamorphic instrument of continually growing abilities advancing on our own. We face this challenge in an historical and historiographical poverty that makes us reluctant if not unable to notice the clues leading to the questions we need to ask. In the humanities, mainly ignorant of what computing is, and so unable to say what it is for beyond clever servitude, we are largely stuck implementing deliverables and reiterating frustrations half a century old. In the essays collected here Mahoney's learned, brilliantly insightful and determined pacing at the edge of the jungle (as he put it) is paradoxically the beginning of our exodus.
Charles E. Stenard
This collection of seminal essays of historian Mike Mahoney, with commentary by Thomas Haigh, rewards the reader with a superbly organized panorama of the history of modern computing, its intellectual roots, and its place in the history of technology.
Choice - M. Mounts
Newcomers to Mahoney will find great value in this collection.
Library Journal
Over the past few decades, advances in computing have revolutionized everything in society, from the way we communicate with friends to how we pay for food at the grocery store. The history of computers and computing has become a major field of study, but the late professor Mahoney (history & history of science, Princeton) believed that most computer historians had their approach all wrong: they accurately recorded dates, events, and inventors, but they weren't asking the important questions. He here challenges historians to approach the history of computing with the same vigor and thoroughness they applied to other aspects of history. He recognized that the history of software development was an often forgotten yet important piece of computing history. This volume compiles Mahoney's key articles, selected and edited by Haigh (information studies, Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee). VERDICT Mahoney understood computer history's significance, and his writings on the subject are important. This is a good choice for academic libraries supporting history of science programs and for lay readers interested in the subject.—William Baer, Georgia Tech, Atlanta
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674055681
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/20/2011
  • Pages: 260
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Sean Mahoney was Professor of History and History of Science at Princeton University.

Thomas Haigh is Associate Professor of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Thomas Haigh is Associate Professor of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures vii

Unexpected Connections, Powerful Precedents, and Big Questions: The Work of Michael Sean Mahoney on the History of Computing Thomas Haigh 1

Part 1 Shaping the History of Computing

1 The History of Computing in the History of Technology 21

2 What Makes History? 38

3 Issues in the History of Computing 42

4 The Histories of Computing(s) 55

Part 2 Constructing a History for Software

5 Software: The Self-Programming Machine 77

6 Extracts from The Roots of Software Engineering 86

7 Finding a History for Software Engineering 90

8 Boys' Toys and Women's "Work: Feminism Engages Software 106

Part 3 The Structures of Computation

9 Computing and Mathematics at Princeton in the 1950s 121

10 Computer Science: The Search for a Mathematical Theory 128

11 Extracts from Computers and Mathematics: The Search for a Discipline of Computer Science 147

12 The Structures of Computation and the Mathematical Structure of Nature 158

13 Extracts from Software as Science—Science as Software 183

Éloge: Michael Sean Mahoney, 1939-2008 Jed Z. Buchwald D. Graham Burnett 197

Notes 205

Acknowledgments 241

Index 243

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