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Issue No. 04 - October-December (2010 vol. 32)
ISSN: 1058-6180
pp: 2-4
Jeffrey R. Yost , Editor in Chief
The history of labor and the history of gender are among the most understudied areas of the history of computing and software. From workers building component devices and assembling machines to programmers and systems analysts, we know relatively little about the production (in contrast to design) of computing systems and the workers involved in the production processes. Computer labor, and its neglect by historians, is far from limited to the production side. Computers, like their punched-card tabulation machine predecessors, differ from a number of technologies in that they have been versatile tools used for many types of work—scientists calculating equations and running simulations, agents booking airline reservations, military personnel monitoring for threats in the sky, and business data processing workers in a range of industries (including many women data processing workers). As computer use has broadened to all realms of society in recent decades, the prevalence and importance of computers in the workplace has never been greater.
Two books published earlier this year, Nathan Ensmenger's The Computer Boys Take Over (MIT Press, 2010) and Thomas Misa's edited volume Gender Codes (Wiley, 2010), are fundamental contributions to the labor and gender history of computing, respectively. Ensmenger focuses on the programming profession and struggles for professional legitimacy and stature. Misa's volume explores how computing became male-coded and the resulting exodus of women from computer science education and the IT workforce.
The lead article of this issue also contributes strongly to the emerging literature on both labor and gender—and more broadly, to computer use and users. Marie Hicks' article "Only the Clothes Changed" examines women computer operators in Great Britain between 1950 and 1970. Her insightful study focuses on the relationship between advertising images of women used to sell data processing computer equipment and the feminized data processing labor force. She shows how both, ironically, might have hindered long-term professional opportunities by defining women as low-cost, unskilled computer workers.
The remainder of this exciting issue spans continents and centuries, exploring a diverse range of important topics and themes—from Charles Babbage's youth and US military software development standards to the MIL MF7114 microprocessor and a personal computer development project in Mexico.
While most of the voluminous literature on Charles Babbage focuses on his middle years and later life, David Alan Grier provides a fresh and intriguing examination of his early years. Grier concentrates particularly on Babbage's college experience (1810–1814) to show his personal struggles and experimentation with his identity. Grier's portrait of Babbage stands in sharp contrast to his established biographers' presentations of a "bright and promising young man who moves against the conventions of a conservative university."
Driven by needs for efficient logistics and operations, security, and safety, US military standards have influenced the trajectory of many technologies and technological systems—from the interchangeable parts of rifles produced at Harpers Ferry Armory in the first half of the 19th century and truck-axle standards during World War I to the US Department of Defense (DoD) initiated Conference on Data Systems Languages (Codasyl) in 1957 and the computer security standards delineated in the DoD's "Orange Book" in the early 1980s. Christopher McDonald substantially adds to our knowledge of military standards and computing with an important analysis of DoD software development standards during the last quarter of the 20th century. He documents the nature of these standardization efforts, the resistance of a number of software development contractors, and the overall limits of the DoD's control.
Seeing beyond the 4005/MF7114 as merely a brief episode in the history of Intel's 4004 microprocessor and the origin of personal computers, Zbigniew Stachniak convincingly demonstrates that the project (a partnership between Intel and Canadian firm Microsystems International that the latter firm saw to completion—the MF7114 microprocessor—after Intel's abandonment of the 4005) has much to offer in understanding the early microprocessor industry, technology transfer, and modes of acquiring systems knowledge.
Shifting to the US's neighbor to the south, Daniel Ortiz-Arroyo, Francisco Rodriquez-Henriquez, and Carlos A. Coello Coello provide an illuminating examination of the Turing-850, a Mexican personal computer development project in the early 1980s. They show how this project demonstrated that Mexico had the technological capabilities for a thriving indigenous personal computing industry, but that government policies, the financial crisis of the 1980s, lower levels of investment, and other factors resulted in less success than the personal computer industries of Brazil and the so-called Asian Tiger countries.
Readers may contact Jeffrey R. Yost at
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