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Raul , Freie Universität Berlin

Pages: pp. 85-88

James W. Cortada, The Digital Hand: How Computers Changed the Work of American Manufacturing, Transportation, and Retail Industries, Oxford Univ. Press, 2004, 544 pp., $24.95, ISBN 0-19-516588-8.

This first volume in James W. Cortada's trilogy of the history of science books aims to describe how computerization has affected America's economy and society and has revolutionized the manufacturing, transportation, wholesale, and retailing industries. Cortada explains that he selected these sectors because they are big enough to allow the identification of basic business and economic behavior patterns with some reasonable level of confidence. In his view, these patterns will become fundamental to the discussion of further industry sectors, such as insurance, banking, passenger travel, and entertainment in subsequent volumes.

The book contains an informative preface, with 12 chapters, two appendices, almost 70 pages of notes, another 12 pages of bibliographic essay, and an index. The book is essentially divided into three parts, where chapters 1, 2, and 3 constitute an introduction, chapters 4 to 11 the core of the book, and the analytic chapter 12, together with the appendices and the bibliographic essay, constitute the final discussion.

The book is a tremendous work; it has more than 500 pages crowded with information consisting of case studies, statistics, and in-depth analysis. It's therefore almost impossible to write a summary. Instead, I will try to look at Cortada's point of view and the different methods that he uses for his analysis.

The analysis of his idea begins in understanding the book's title: The metaphor of the hand dates back to Adam Smith's famous book The Wealth of Nations, where an invisible hand defines a notion of subliminal market forces generating demand for goods and services. Alfred D. Chandler. Jr. extended the notion to the Visible Hand, which characterizes the influence that managers and modern companies have on the economy. Therefore, the Digital Hand defines the impact that information technology has in influencing managerial decisions.

A main feature that makes Cortada's book different from other computer history books is that he doesn't tell the story of a specific machine or a certain application. His approach is not driven by enumerating technological innovations, but by looking at the behavior of industries and their causes. As a side effect, he introduces the word digital as an abstract description for the sum of everything that concerns digital technology and speaks of "the digital" throughout the entire book. Cortada writes that he had studied more than 10,000 publications to look at the history of how information technology was used in major industries.

The author emphasizes the innovative character of his approach by providing an entire appendix on his methods. He summarizes the research process in four basic steps (p. 390–391). The first step consists of understanding an industry's structure, including the key events in history and the current business issues. The next step consists of understanding what the industry really does before. In step three, he identifies what technologies are deployed within each group of tasks. This means he documented each of the implemented applications and the underlying technologies and how this was done by whom and when. In the last stage, he assesses all the effects of the deployment on the firm's operation and, lastly, the industry, taking into account all major technologies that play a role. The goal is to develop creditable answers to questions (see p. 390) such as

  • What are the business issues that compel management to deploy a particular technology?
  • What practices are proven to be effective or ineffective in an industry?
  • What effect do particular technologies have on the structure and organization of firms and industries?

Cortada's result is a comprehensive study that contains a lot of numbers, business anecdotes, and analyzed reasons that are, as a consequence of his method, clustered by industry sectors.

A key topic in the book is the introduction of the Universal Product Code (UPC), also known as bar code, because it became the most significant improvement in productivity in the grocery industry since the introduction of the supermarket (Stephen A. Brown cited on p. 298).

In the 1960s, members of the grocery industry found that a way of identifying products through machine-readable labels would increase productivity. However, at that time, information-handling industries underestimated the usefulness of such a system, impelling grocery market leaders to form a consortium to standardize a unique way for this type of labeling in 1970. The result was the Uniform Grocery Product Identification Code (UGPIC) in 1973, which with later improvements, led to UPC labels. Soon, a central standardization organization was founded to take account of the registration process for new products. In 1976, 65 to 80 percent of the entire mix of products in a supermarket was labeled (p. 299).

According to Cortada, one of the reasons why UPC labels spread was that the grocery industry did not only sell groceries; health and beauty aids as well as household cleaners were also part of their product palette. The event that really got bar codes into industrial applications occurred at the dawn of the 1990s, when the US Department of Defense adopted the use of UPCs as a requirement for marking all products sold to the US military.

Looking at the UPC example, the difference between Cortada's history book and most other books is easily demonstrated. Many other descriptions of the history of the UPC begin with the 1952 patent quarrel over bar codes and end with the first product scanned at a Marsh's supermarket in Troy, Ohio, in 1974. The literature rarely explores the reasons for the success of the UPC and the causes for the adaptation by other industries. Cortada, however, does precisely this: His telling of the history of the UPC does not conclude with the first use, it almost begins with it. His study exploits the industrial decisions and managerial reasoning that led to the massive success.

I fully recommend this book. Written from a nontechnical perspective, it's a must-read for everyone wanting to know how and why new technology is adopted by industries whose managers wish to earn money but are not interested in playing with a technology just because it exists. With each chapter abundantly annotated and referenced—Chapter 8, for example, contains 251 notes—it's clear that Cortada knows his subject. I very much look forward to reading the next two volumes.

Gerald Friedland

Freie Universität Berlin

Jacques André and Pierre Mounier-Kuhn, eds., Actes du 7e colloque sur l'Histoire de l'Informatique et des Transmissions, Espacé Ferrie – École Supérieure et d'Application des Transmissions [ Proc. 7th Symp. on the History of Data Processing and Communications], Nat'l Inst. for Research on Informatics and Automation, 2004, 269 pp., 30, ISBN 2-72611-1281-1.

Annals readers are sophisticated enough to know that the computer is not simply the invention of American and British engineers. Over the last 26 years, Annals has attempted to bring attention to the contributions of such computer pioneers as Konrad Zuse in Germany or Serge Lebedev in the Soviet Union. Yet, at times, Annals might stand fairly accused of presenting an American point of view on a global technology, of looking at the field's developments with the assumption that most of the important ones happened in the US. As readers can see by recent appointments to the Annals editorial board, we are attempting to get a broader, more international perspective on computers, computing, and high technology institutions. As part of that effort, this conference proceedings comes as a welcome addition.

The book is the proceedings of the conference on the history of computing and communication in France. This conference was organized in 1990 with the assistance of the French National Academy of Arts of Trades and has met biennially ever since. The most recent meetings of this conference, the seventh, was convened in November 2004 at Grenoble, France. This conference accepted papers on six broad themes:

  • the history of peripheral systems,
  • technologies and software for legacy systems,
  • the history and research of the French organization Transpac,
  • the history of computer security,
  • the history of computer systems, and
  • the history of computing institutions in western France.

Annals readers, we can perhaps best discuss the papers in three distinct groups:

  • the history of French institutions and ideas that are known in the US,
  • the history of general computing from a French perspective, and
  • the history of institutions that are currently underappreciated outside of France.

In the first category, we find papers on Groupe Bull and Minitel. Groupe Bull, the major French computing manufacturer of the 1960s and 1970s, joined forces with the US firm Honeywell. The Minitel system was a pre-Internet network that delivered computing services to both business and consumers. Both of these institutions have been treated in the English language literature, but the papers included in this proceedings give an intimate, insider's view.

In the second category, we find papers on the IBM 1620, the X.25 communications standard, the ATM protocol, and computer viruses. These papers serve as strong reminders that such technologies were not merely US inventions that were accepted without modification by businesses, governments, and universities in other countries. Each had to be adapted for a new cultural environment, and in many cases, each was touched by substantial innovation as it was prepared for deployment.

The most intriguing papers in the volume deal with the ideas that I was unfamiliar with: the Myosotis cryptographic machine and the computing institutions of western France. These papers encouraged me to move from my traditional, American viewpoint and try to conceive how the computer was developed in a different part of western culture.

As I read the papers, I was looking for a definitively French way of looking at the history of computing. Much of what I read proved to be similar, albeit in French, to papers that we publish in the Annals. The volume contained many chronological histories of institutions and discoveries. The papers were concerned with the role of institutions and individuals. Several authors focused on issues that have been of concern to Annals contributors, such as the problems of studying software as an historical artifact and the issues surrounding the continued operation of historical machines.

In the end, this volume's contributions are less theoretical than practical. In reading them, I'm reminded that there were computer developments that had to deal with the plethora of European standards, that Charles de Galle influenced computing initiatives, and that western France was a center of innovation.

The volume is in French, although a few papers have English summaries.

David Alan Grier

George Washington University

Harry D. Huskey, Harry D. Huskey: His Story, BookSurge (, 149 pp., $65.99, ISBN-1-59457-680-7.

Harry Huskey was there at the beginning. As an instructor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, he found part-time work on the ENIAC project in March 1945 (see Chapter 5). In August 1946, Huskey was offered a one-year appointment at the National Physical Laboratory, where he worked with Alan Turing and visited other British computer projects, meeting pioneers like Maurice Wilkes, Freddy Williams, and Tommy Flowers, among others (see Chapter 6).

Upon his return to the US, Huskey went to work for the National Bureau of Standards. Based on his UK experiences, he proposed the construction of a parallel computer using William's tube memory at the Institute for Numerical Analysis on the University of California, Los Angeles, campus. After moving to Los Angeles, Huskey lead the development work for what was later named the Standards Western Automatic Computer, or SWAC (see Chapter 7).

While on the faculty at Wayne State University, Huskey did consultant work for the Bendix Corporation on the construction of a computer he had designed while at NBS (and that NBS had decided not to build). This effort lead to the Bendix G-15 Magnetic Drum Computer. As part of his agreement with Bendix, Huskey was given a G-15 for his use in developing software. Huskey gave this machine to the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, where it is part of the Information Age exhibit. Huskey believes that the SWAC and the G-15 were his most significant contributions to computer history (see Chapter 8, p. 62).

However, in addition to his efforts in computer hardware, Harry Huskey also edited The Computer Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 1962); served as a consultant to the Naval Electronics Laboratory on the development of the NELLIAC language; organized a computer group for the Los Angeles chapter of the Institute for Radio Engineers (IRE), which later became part of the IEEE Computer Society; and served as an ACM President, among other accomplishments. In 1980, his efforts merited the IEEE Computer Society's Pioneer Award. Harry Huskey was truly one of the giants of computer history.

That being said, as much as I admire Harry Huskey and his numerous accomplishments, this book is disappointing. It's a personal memoir mainly suited for the author's family. Unfortunately, it contains little information of interest to historians, contains errors that should have been corrected by an editor, and can only be purchased off the Internet.

The book appears to have been produced with limited editorial assistance. It contains numerous omissions, which a knowledgeable editor could have corrected. For example, on page 43, Alan Turing's name is given as "Allen," and Thomas H. Flowers and Allen W.M. Coombs are identified as "Flowers and Coombs." John H. Curtiss of the National Bureau of Standards is identified only as "Curtiss" on page 51. On page 53, the reader is told that Huskey worked at NAML, which is not identified as the National Applied Mathematics Laboratory. Figure 45, showing a large crate from "MBI" is obviously backward.

The narrative is also uneven, and the Huskey family history overwhelms his contributions to computer history. Chapter 1 identifies how Huskey became involved with the ENIAC. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 cover his "Childhood, Education, and Marriage." In Chapter 5, ENIAC gets about two pages, and EDVAC less. Chapter 6, about his time in England isn't bad, but there's too much about his family and very little about what went on at the NPL. The same can be said of Chapters 7 and 8, which are about his efforts at NBS and with the Bendix Corporation. Chapters 9 and 10 are cursory treatments of The Computer Handbook and NELLIAC, respectively. Indeed, Chapter 12, "UC Berkley and Computers" is only two-thirds of a page long, and Chapter 14, "Time-Sharing at Berkeley," starts with a single paragraph and then turns into a travelogue having nothing to do with time-sharing or Berkeley. A good editor might have helped Huskey put more historical content into his narrative, especially since Huskey has written so much. The book does not have an index.

In retrospect, it's difficult to find many historical nuggets in this book—even when you are familiar with computer history and Harry Huskey's many contributions, including his articles for Annals. 1 The bibliography identifies 17 of his writings. A Bibliographic Guide to the History of Computing, Computers, and the Information Processing Industry (James W. Cortada, Greenwood Press, 1990) identifies 10 others, and I found two more by searching the IEEE Member Digital Library.

Although this book is disappointing, we must accept it for what it is, a memoir by one of the founders of the computing discipline at the ripe old age of 89, and avail ourselves of his other writings to learn about his many contributions.

References and notes

About the Authors

Tim Bergin
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