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  • Michael Sean Mahoney (1939–2008)
  • William Aspray (bio)

From 1988, when he published his first paper in the history of computing, until his death in 2008, Michael Sean Mahoney was one of the leading international figures in the history of computing. This biography focuses on Mahoney’s contributions to computing history and how he came to study this topic. His research in other areas of the history of science and technology is covered here only to the extent that it helps to explain the context for his work in computer history.

Research in the History of Computing

Mahoney published approximately 15 papers in this field, primarily covering three aspects of the history of computing: historiography, software engineering, and theoretical computer science.1 His work in historiography will probably be the most lasting contribution, and in fact his first publication in this area, “The History of Computing in the History of Technology,”2 has been his most influential. In this paper, he challenged the scholars in the field—mostly computer practitioners and a few historians—to learn from and integrate the study of computer history with the more mature field of technology history. He identified seminal questions and influential studies by leading technology historians such as Thomas Hughes, Merritt Roe Smith, David Hounshell, Walter MacDougall, David Noble, Eugene Ferguson, Brooke Hindle, Reese Jenkins, Edward Constant, and Nathan Rosenberg that could profitably guide study in the history of computing. Many scholars listened closely and followed this lead. One of his last papers, “The Histories of Computing(s),” published in 2005, looked back on the scholarship in this field over the previous 20 years and questioned the common, machine-centered organization of historical writing and in particular the argument that the ENIAC is the watershed event between many independent strands of early calculation and modern computing.

Mahoney quite reasonably placed his main interest in software rather than hardware, given his principal interest in the use of technology. His three most important contributions in software area were each of a different type. Upon the invitation from a friend, Mahoney was given access to Bell Labs, where he recorded a series of oral histories documenting the invention of the influential operating system Unix.3 In 1993, ACM’s special interest group SIGPLAN held its second of three conferences on the history of programming languages, inviting the principal developers to tell the creation stories of major languages such as Ada, C, Pascal, Prolog, and Smalltalk. Mahoney worked tirelessly with these practitioners to create accounts of enduring historical value. His third and perhaps most vivid result in the software area was his analysis of the misappropriation by software engineers of the metaphor of the Fordist production line in software production.4

Background of Michael Sean Mahoney

Born: 30 June 1939, New York City

Died: 23 July 2008, Princeton, New Jersey

Education: BS (magna cum laude, history and science) Harvard University, 1960; PhD (history and history of science) Princeton University, 1967.

Professional Experience: Melpar Electronics, computer programmer, 1960; Princeton University, assistant professor, 1967–1972; associate professor, 1972–1980; full professor, 1980–2008; director, Program in History and Philosophy of Science (1972–1976); director, Program in History of Science (1982–1983); director, Program in Science in Human Affairs (1982–1983, 1987–1990).

The most enigmatic, yet perhaps the most passionate of Mahoney’s work in computer history concerned theoretical computer science. Over the last 16 years of his life, he published seven papers on this topic.5 Throughout this period, he continued to work on a book with the title The Structures of Computation: Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, 1950–1970, which remained in a highly incomplete state at the time of his death. The book sought to provide an intellectual history of the creation of theoretical computer science out of mathematics and logic. Protagonists in his account included, among others, Alonzo Church, John McCarthy, Dana Scott, Christopher Strachey, and John von Neumann. I regard this work as enigmatic because Mahoney had a limited audience for this [End Page 70] work, yet it was the one he most passionately pursued; historians were turned off by the technical detail, while many mainstream computer scientists were uninterested in the theoretical topics...


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