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  • It Began with Babbage: The Genesis of Computer Science by Subrata Dasgupta
  • David Nofre (bio)
It Began with Babbage: The Genesis of Computer Science. By Subrata Dasgupta. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xii+ 328. $34.95.

By the end of the 1960s, computer science had established itself at U.S. universities as a discipline with real scientific credibility. True, the nature of the discipline still was the subject of heated controversy. But the nascent community of computer scientists had succeeded in identifying a set of epistemic objects, such as algorithms, data structures, and programming languages, around which to build a disciplinary apparatus, and they had developed a standard terminology, a conceptual toolkit, and even a first range of textbooks. The 1968 publication of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Curriculum 68 for academic programs in computer science soon became a model for similar programs all over the world, symbolically marking the end of this period of discipline formation.

This book chronicles the rise of computer science as the culmination of a long effort to realize the idea of automatic computation. Subrata Dasgupta, a computer scientist with a particular interest in the nature of design, follows the scheme set out in the popular literature on the history of computing and takes us on a journey through the ideas, visions, and goals of a familiar collection of names, from Leibniz and Babbage to Turing, von Neumann, and Dijkstra. Inspired by evolutionary theory, he presents, in a very accessible manner, the core ideas or paradigms, in the Kuhnian sense, that came to shape the canon of the new discipline. These core ideas, like programmability or the stored-concept schema, are presented as examples of design-as-theories—results of the design process that led to now iconic artifacts, from Babbage’s Engines to the first electronic computers.

Although the book opens with an interesting discussion on the nature of computer science, the bulk of the work deals with the period before its dawn as scientific discipline. Only the last four chapters (of a total of sixteen) focus on the formative period of the discipline, roughly 1955–70. This choice of focus matches the book’s teleological framework, in which past ideas are treated as blueprints for posterity, awaiting only the right moment to emerge as paradigms. The reader will not find new sources or insights on computing history, as the author relies on well-known scientific literature and a few secondary sources, all fairly outdated. Hence, the reader is left wondering whether these stories might have had another ending in store apart from their ultimate contribution to the foundations of computer science.

Moreover, such a teleological approach is of little help in providing an answer to the question the book seeks to answer: “What is the nature of the science in computer science?” (p. 4). Following the famous 1967 definition [End Page 537] of Allen Newell, Herbert Simon, and Alan Perlis, Dasgupta defines computer science as a science of the artificial whose domain comprises computational artifacts (material, abstract, or liminal) that can automatically process symbols. Yet this definition, taken out of its historical context, is problematic. As the author rightly concedes, computer science differs from the other sciences of the artificial by the extent to which abstract artifacts and theories, such as algorithms or programming languages, have come to dominate the field. So what prompted such preference for abstraction?

At this point, the idea of automatic computation as founding principle of computer science shows its limitations. To be fair, historians of computing are just starting to explore the social and intellectual processes of boundary work that led to the formation of computer science. Nevertheless, they have identified the shift away from the particular physical machine toward the study of universal computational processes as one of the key transformations in the emergence of computer science. This shift remains only partly understood, and it raises difficult questions about the interplay between science and technology, artifacts and their representations, the role of gender in the establishment of a discipline, and the roots of our current dematerialized view of digital technologies. This book offers a vivid sketch of the historical background of some...


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pp. 537-538
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