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Computer: A History of the Information Machine (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 39, Number 4, October 1998
pp. 820-821 | 10.1353/tech.1998.0063

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Computer: A History of the Information Machine. By Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Asprey. New York: Basic Books, 1996. Pp. ix+342; illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $28.

Computer is a readable and comprehensive history intended to acquaint novices with a growing historical literature as well as to provide an overview of that history from Charles Babbage through Bill Gates. The authors are well-known contributors to that literature. They have gone beyond it, however, in their interpretation, adding insights that can arise only from a synthetic view of the origins, development, and use of the computer.

The treatment is divided into computing before computers, the era of the mainframe computer, and the origins of the personal computer and the Internet. The mainframe is given the lion’s share of attention, which reasonably reflects the amount of historical attention devoted to it if not the popular conception of its importance.

The prelude to the mainframe is concisely set forward in the first quarter of the book. Here Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Asprey focus on the technological opportunities and economic and scientific needs of industrializing England and France in the early nineteenth century. In particular, the coupling of scientists’ needs for better means of calculating tables and banks’ needs for better means of exchanging checks inspired Babbage’s attempts to mechanize these processes in his difference engine. The subsequent development of transportation and communication provided other incentives to mechanize information processing, but for Babbage the solution of these problems remained a dream.

The American analog to the English demand for mechanized processing of information was the U.S. census, for although the former colony lagged behind Britain in industrialization, it was more advanced in social statistics. Herman Hollerith succeeded where Babbage had failed in providing a solution to the increasing difficulty of keeping track of an exploding population. Americans also benefited from their backwardness by taking advantage of new office machines that became available after the Civil War.

Besides the economic advantages of backwardness, which Alexander Gerschenkron explored more thoroughly, both the importance of labor-saving devices in the United States as described by H. J. Habakkuk and the production technologies of the American system of manufactures, which [End Page 820] David Hounshell and others have analyzed, played a role in the rapid adoption of machines to process information. Here the authors miss an opportunity to relate their subject to broader trends in economic history and the history of technology. The growth of the business machine industry, told here in terms of government needs (the census, Social Security) and entrepreneurs’ responses (NCR’s Patterson, IBM’s Watson) is part of a much larger pattern of industrial development and economic growth.

The heart of the book is the oft-told story of the development of the modern computer, which is here presented as the fulfillment of Babbage’s dream, not in Cambridge, England, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Vannevar Bush and Howard Aiken perfected the electromechanical computer. Bush’s differential analyzer was immediately adopted by the British for scientific computation, whereas Aiken’s Mark I “had a short heyday before being eclipsed by electronic machines which operated much faster because they had no moving parts. . . . Not only was the Harvard Mark I a technological dead end, it did not even do anything very useful in the fifteen years that it ran” (p. 75). The rapid obsolescence of the electromechanical computer had everything to do with World War II, which provided, in computing as in so many other fields, unprecedented sums of money from America’s military establishment for high-technology weapons and tools of war, such as machines to calculate the trajectory of artillery shells.

The postwar story of mainframe computing shows how the legacy of this wartime development was extended by IBM and the “seven dwarves,” a mix of business machine, electronic, and entrepreneurial firms funded by the cold war development of the SAGE air-defense system and DARPA’s contributions to computer technology. Although this is a familiar story, it is told effectively here, and without sparing the authors’ judgments of the historical forces that favored IBM.

Computer ends with a survey of recent...