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Becoming Universal

By Thomas Haigh

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 2, Pages 25-30
10.1145/3506578

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How to fit the history of computing into a book that can be picked up without needing a forklift truck? That was my challenge in writing A New History of Modern Computing5 (hereafter the "new history") with Paul Ceruzzi. My previous book, ENIAC in Action6 explored a single computer. Now we had to tell the story of billions of them, drawing on the work of an ever-expanding research community to help us find a story hiding among all the model numbers.

I should be clear up front that this is an academic history of computing. Trade books are the ones that get stocked in bookstores, reviewed in newspapers, and so on. Their editors will select and rewrite manuscripts with a mass audience in mind. Trade publishers appear to have decided, perhaps correctly, the only way to sell books on the history of computing is to stuff them with people and stories that readers already know about while nevertheless insisting they are tragically forgotten. Their books feature a lot of Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, and other "geniuses." They obsess over the question of the "first computer" and spend a lot of time in the 1940s laboriously weighing evidence for the primacy of one invention or another before awarding the crown. Once computers are invented their authors lose interest in them. Popular histories that make it out of the 1940s tend to repeat the focus on invention with later innovations—the first personal computers, the first Web browser, and so on. In recent years the more forward-looking authors, like Walter Isaacson whose book The Innovators now dominates the market, have taken pains to include a few women geniuses, like Ada Lovelace, alongside the men.7

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