The Community for Technology Leaders


Pages: pp. 116-117

Lars Heide, Punched-Card Systems and the Early Information Explosion, 1880–1945, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009, 369 pp., $65.00, ISBN 139780801891434.

This is the first major history to appear on national uses of punched-card equipment in more than 15 years and is a welcome addition to the literature. (Some of the most recent national histories were written in the early 1990s by Hartmut Petzold and myself. 1,2) With the publication of Lars Heide's book, we are all reminded of the importance of this class of technology, which was widely used in many parts of the world for over a half century before digital computers came into their own. These early adopters of data processing became the core of the first wave of users of digital computers in North America and Western Europe.

Heide has provided the first multinational comparative history of punched-card equipment, its uses, and its vendors, telling the story of this technology in the US, Great Britain, France, and Germany from the 1880s to the end of World War II. He devotes nearly half the book to describing how the technology unfolded in the US, beginning with the work of Herman Hollerith. He relies extensively on archival materials and, in particular, patent records and IBM's corporate archives. With these and many other sources, he provides a far richer account of the evolution of this class of technologies and the activities of its vendors and users than seen in earlier studies of the subject. He paints a picture of a highly innovative, competitive near-global market that proved far more active and much larger than previously known. Heide also demonstrates that cultural and operational differences existed across each of the four countries, even though uses of the technology followed similar patterns of adoption. For example, while accounting and census taking were common uses across the four countries, accounting needs in Germany differed from those in the US, calling for machines designed specifically for German users.

Relying on archival sources to describe French, British, German, and American experiences, Heide organizes the book largely around uses, beginning with census processing; then calculation of statistics, bookkeeping, and accounting; and ending with extensive discussions of how the various countries tracked their citizens. Additionally, in the beginning of the book, he gives a detailed account of the origins of punched-card equipment with Hollerith and others, in the process providing a thorough study of IBM's early history. Throughout the book he contributes much additional detail about the role of IBM in Europe, including an interesting discussion of the uses of tabulating equipment during World War II.

The sum is a book that enhances our understanding of how this technology was shaped by cultural and market forces and, conversely, how the technology influenced the behavior of markets and users. This approach means that Heide's book sits comfortably next to those of other historians of 19th to early 20th century information systems, who like Heide, have emphasized the symbiotic relationship between the users and developers of punched-card technology. Heide builds on such works, adding rich detail and interpretations to the prior work of earlier historians of the subject.

A side note on this book is particularly important to European historians. The author, who has written other books (all in Danish), chose to write this one in English, rather than translate it from his native language. That strategy influenced his view of the subject as he had to think in English and, in the process of writing it in English, guaranteed himself a much larger readership. It took extra effort on his part—and clearly a patient editor and publisher—but the result is a book that reads as if written by a native English-speaking author. Additionally, through his research, we are reminded that to do good work on European and Asian history one must consult archival materials that can be difficult to read and often almost impossible to find, as well as cover a large pool of publications in various languages. With the arrival of this book, we can no longer ignore the importance of exploring European IT history more thoroughly. It also means both European and American historians must not shy away from conducting research in multiple languages.

Heide's book is an important addition to the rapidly growing body of historical literature being written by professional historians on computing outside the US. This is a well-informed, well-written history, and it is now the essential book on punched-card systems.

ReferencesH.PetzoldModern Rechen Künstler[in German], C.H. Beck,1992.J.W.CortadaBefore the Computer,Princeton Univ. Press,1993.

James W. Cortada


Kurt W. Beyer, Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, MIT Press, 2009, 408 pp., $27.95, ISBN 978-0262013109.

Kurt W. Beyer's biography of Grace Hopper presents a lively, lucid narrative of the professional life of one of the most celebrated figures in the history of computing. Beyer, a former professor of information technology at the US Naval Academy who currently works in industry, situates Hopper's contributions to the nascent field of programming as key to the development of the information age.

Beyer begins with Hopper's early career as a professor of mathematics at an all-women's college, leaving her early life mostly out of the frame. This starting point signals Beyer's objective: he is exclusively concerned with Hopper's professional development and accomplishments, and discussion of Hopper's personal life rarely intrudes into the narrative.

His history gets underway in earnest with the outbreak of World War II and Hopper's enlistment in the newly created Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES) at age 37. Although her goal was to help the war effort by using her mathematical background for cryptographic work, Hopper was instead sent to Howard Aiken's computer installation at Harvard. There she became the third programmer (and only woman) to work on Aiken's IBM-built, Harvard-financed, and Navy-controlled Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, better known as the Mark I.

Although she received a frosty welcome—Aiken had not wanted a woman programmer—Hopper eventually flourished there. Learning how best to program the Mark I, an electromechanical behemoth with more than 750,000 moving parts (composed, in part, of unhelpfully high-resistance piano wire due to wartime shortages), was no easy feat. This difficult assignment gave Hopper both an intimate knowledge of the hardware and valuable coding experience. Beyer provides an excellent description of how these two, now distinct, skill sets went hand in hand during the early days of the Mark I's operation. Also during this period, Hopper gained the respect and support of Aiken, a figure of growing influence in the evolving field, and forged other key professional friendships.

Beyer frequently alludes to, but leaves mostly unexplored, what he refers to as the "gender tensions" that Hopper faced (p. 40). The institutional sexism that made Hopper an exception in Aiken's lab during the war also effectively ended her career in academic computing at the war's end; the new department of engineering and applied physics, where Aiken's lab found its home after it was released from the Navy's control, offered no chance of promotion past the rank of research fellow for a woman. Beyer's book only briefly touches on systemic discrimination, and its meanings and impacts are left under analyzed. This is a seeming paradox for a biography of a female pioneer whose name is synonymous with current efforts to combat institutionalized discrimination in computing.

Hopper's subsequent job at John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert's company, spun off from their work on the ENIAC, initially proved even more difficult. The fledgling company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy before being bought by Remington Rand. Although executives there failed to grasp computing's full potential, Hopper's years at Remington Rand (later Sperry Rand) were among the most fruitful of her career, from the creation of the compiler to the development of English-based computing languages that would form the basis for Cobol. Beyer argues that Hopper's vision of more accessible, automated programming began to gain ground industry wide as a result of her collaborative style of innovation and her tireless efforts to sell computing's potential to ever-wider audiences. Her work as head of the ACM's Nomenclature Committee benefited from this approach, as she worked to cement a common professional language that would both reflect and support the field's intellectual maturation.

Beyer argues that Hopper fostered a style of collaborative, feedback-reliant production that ultimately created better programming tools. He calls this collaborative process "distributed invention" (p. 22). His idea of "distributed biography," however, fares less well, sometimes squeezing Hopper out of her own story. In addition, an unfortunate lack of gender analysis limits the reader's understanding of the historical context of Hopper's career and the careers of the many other pioneering women discussed.

Nevertheless, Beyer's main contention is insightful and instructive; Hopper's collaborative and communicative ideals, as much as her technical talent, resulted in her contributions to the field being even greater than the sum of her own significant technical innovations. As a result, she played a central role in establishing the emergent field's goals and standards. For this reason, Beyer describes Hopper not simply as an inventor, but as a critical figure in the creation of an information age where flexible and portable software and programming tools unlock the data that drives our economy.

Marie Hicks

North Carolina State University

Contact department editor Hunter Heyck at
61 ms
(Ver 3.x)