Issue No. 03 - July-Sept. (2009 vol. 31)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MAHC.2009.51
Atsushi Akera, Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers, and Computers During the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research, MIT Press, 2008, 440 pp., $23.00, ISBN 0262512033.
In Calculating a Natural World, Atushi Akera presents a detailed and historiographically novel history of computing. The organizing principle of Akera's book is pluralism. To Akera, there was no one central concept, core institution, or individual mastermind behind the computer revolution. Rather, the revolution was made by many people in many contexts, all linked together in shifting ecologies of knowledge, which are based on a tradition in science studies that treats knowledge production as an ecological process. 1 (That is, each history builds on others and illuminates the larger "ecology" of which it is part.) In keeping with this historical analysis, pluralism also describes Akera's methodology; to him, the history of computing should combine institutional history, intellectual history, and personal biography. Multiple perspectives are needed to tell a pluralistic story. As a result, the subjects of Akera's chapters range from a biography of John Mauchly and his role in the creation of the ENIAC computer to an institutional history of academic computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan.
Pluralism provides both a thread uniting the different subjects and historical approaches in different chapters and a frame through which Akera interprets the history of computing, in particular, and Cold War science, in general. The pluralistic approach provides a much deeper historical tapestry for him to work with and more accurately reflects the complexities of scientific development in the 20th century than a singular approach.
The book's central argument is that computing developed in a variety of institutional and social settings, a story that Akera persuasively argues is representative of the complexity of knowledge creation in many fields during the Cold War. Akera uses ecologies of knowledge as his main tool for conceptualizing the myriad sites of knowledge construction in the history of computing. He even provides visual representations of these ecologies that give an indication of the interrelationships he describes. In this theoretical analysis, Akera specifically engages concepts such as Galison's trading zones2—conceptual areas where scientific and/or technical disciplines overlap—and Latour's actor-network theory 3 and provides a general, useful addition to the conceptual grounding of science studies. Calculating a Natural World thus provides updated theoretical tools for historians and sociologists of science while updating the historiography of computing.
From a traditional vantage point, Akera's book might seem disjointed, with no central actor, technology, or institution to anchor the narrative. Rather, the subject of study for Akera is the ecology of computing knowledge itself and the intersecting networks that constitute it. Thus understood, Akera presents the history of computing in the 20th century as the history of changing networks of actors. While these networks are constantly changing, they are stable enough over shorter time spans for Akera to identify several distinct periods in postwar computing. The individual chapters serve to document the fine changes in the circumstances of individual actors and institutions within those periods. The true strength of Akera's approach is in correlating these historical snapshots to the overall story of shifting ecologies of knowledge.
In connecting each chapter to the book's overall objective, Akera continually emphasizes contingency, a historical concept second in importance only to pluralism in his account. The contingencies of institutional location and academic training emerge from biographical accounts such as the chapter on John Mauchly. Similarly, we see contingency in the complex institutional relationships that sponsored computing research. If the reader takes nothing else from this book, it is that pluralism and contingency are defining characteristics of scientific research in the 20th century. Mauchly is perhaps the best example of this. In examining the circulation of knowledge leading up to the construction of ENIAC from the perspective of Mauchly's biography, Akera reveals direct parallels between the incremental changes in the design of ENIAC and Mauchly's own intellectual development, neither of which followed a predictable path.
Calculating a Natural World is an exemplary history of computing that moves past the formal logic versus electronics debate over the origins of computing and updates the standard historiography of computing in a number of different areas. Furthermore, in addition to Akera's overarching theoretical conclusions, the individual chapters are thorough mini-histories in themselves. This book is a valuable resource for anyone with research, teaching, or general interest in the history of computing.
Most of all, though, Calculating a Natural World presents a fresh theoretical approach that identifies new historical connections and updates the historiography of computing. By avoiding the temptation to take historical shortcuts in order to provide a simpler narrative, he opens up the history of computing and unites the histories of formal logic and electronics in a way that is at once obvious and surprising. Calculating a Natural World is a thoroughly researched book that reveals the cultural, intellectual, and technological origins of what is arguably the most influential technology of our age. It is an essential addition to the library of anyone interested in the history of computing.
University of Oklahoma
George J. Klir, ed., Memorable Ideas of a Computer School: The Life and Work of Antonín Svoboda, Czech Technical Univ. Publishing House, 2007, 341 pp., ISBN 978-80-01-03904-5.
Antonín Svoboda is a well-known figure in computing history due to his work on computation using mechanical linkages for antiaircraft weapons during World War II and his pioneering contributions to computing in Czechoslovakia. The latter posthumously earned Svoboda the 1996 IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award. Less known to historians are Svoboda's publications on theoretical computer science and computer arithmetic. George Klir's book therefore serves as a welcome addition, albeit an imperfect one.
Klir attempts to give a comprehensive view of Svoboda's accomplishments by dedicating approximately 40 pages of this compilation to a biographical overview, a chronology of major events, several pages of photographs, and an extensive bibliography. The remainder consists of reprints of selected papers by Svoboda. Much of the biographical material covered has been previously published elsewhere and is based on the oral history conducted by Robina Mapstone in 1979 for the Charles Babbage Institute. 1
The biographical part makes for entertaining reading, but the narrative's quality is somewhat inconsistent. Klir was a student and close associate of Svoboda's and his admiration is readily apparent; minor stylistic transgressions and a slightly meandering style can be forgiven. Klir also includes his own story, but that too is acceptable because it adds to the understanding of the political and academic environment of the time.
Klir recounts the circuitous route Antonín Svoboda, his family, and his associates had to take in their attempts to flee from Czechoslovakia to France and ultimately to the US. Parallels to Konrad Zuse's escape from Berlin come to mind, and Svoboda's emigration via Casablanca conjures up Hollywood films. Although this period of personal hardship is likely of less interest to the computer historian, it paints a richer picture than a mere chronology of technical accomplishments would. Svoboda's enthusiastic return to Czechoslovakia after the war and his eventual defection to the US in 1964 round out the story that helps put his accomplishments into a geopolitical context.
Svoboda had the good fortune to have met some American and Western European computer pioneers during his time at the MIT Radiation Laboratory 2 and then during a research tour in 1947. His friendship with Howard Aiken and visits to Harvard made Svoboda aware of the potential of digital computing. His subsequent shift towards digital technology can be seen as an example of technology transfer across the Iron Curtain. Klir points out instances of independent discovery by Svoboda in his theoretical work and reminds us that sharing of information between east and west during the Cold War was significantly impeded.
The reprints of Svoboda's papers are almost exclusively from the fields of number representation, computer arithmetic, and Boolean function theory and logic design. 3 These papers—some of them published here for the first time—along with the personal photographs are the main strength of this book. Although there is little detail on Svoboda's UCLA years in the narrative, some of the papers are from that period. The previously unpublished papers on the application of the special-purpose Boolean Analyzer are a valuable primary source. Klir made the conscious decision not to include documents relating to mechanical linkages and correctly argues that this topic is best covered in Svoboda's own book. 2
Klir's book gives a very personal story of Antonín Svoboda, which supplements prior publications, but does not venture into critical historical analysis. The collection of papers is selective and the reader should not expect coverage of all aspects of Svoboda's substantial body of work. The most obvious omission is the result of the abbreviated treatment of the SAPO and EPOS machines. 1,4,5 Nonetheless, Klir's book will further the understanding of Czechoslovakian computing in general and Svoboda's larger contributions in particular. 6
Contact department editor Hunter Heyck at email@example.com.
Computer History Museum