Writing & research on the history of computing

Exploring the history of programming languages, computer science, and European cooperation in computing


“The Politics of Early Programming Languages: IBM and the Algol Project”, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences (2021) 51 (3): 379–413 [publisher's link] [postprint]

On the Cold War politics and international economic competition of programming languages. The article explores how the strong research-oriented agenda of the Algol project increased IBM’s doubts about a project that the firm already felt little urge to support. Eventually, the US Department of Defense’s endorsement of Cobol and the rising popularity of Algol in Europe convinced IBM to push for the use of its own programming language Fortran in Western Europe in order to protect the domestic market.

“Managing the Technological Edge: the UNESCO International Computation Centre and the Limits to the Transfer of Computer Technology, 1946-61”, Annals of Science, 71, 3 (2014): 410-31 [publisher's link] [postprint]

On US foreign science policy operating as (stealth) industrial policy to secure technological advantage in computing. At the center of the article lies the ill-fated establishment of the UNESCO International Computation Centre, which became a prize sought by Western European countries like the Netherlands and Italy seeking to speed up their national research programs. The US government, however, managed to restrict considerably the research function of the future center, which resulted in the withdrawal of European support for the project.

with M. Priestley, G. Alberts, “When Technology Became Language: The Origins of the Linguistic Conception of Computer Programming, 1950–1960”, Technology and Culture, 55, 1 (2014): 40-75 [Mahoney Prize 2015] [publisher's link] [pdf]

Language is one of the central metaphors around which the discipline of computer science has been built. The language metaphor entered modern computing as part of a cybernetic discourse, but during the second half of the 1950s acquired a more abstract meaning, closely related to the formal languages of logic and linguistics. The article argues that this transformation was related to the appearance of the commercial computer in the mid-1950s.

“Unravelling Algol: U.S., Europe, and the Creation of a Programming Language”, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 32, 2 (2010): 58-68 [publisher's link] [pdf]

Common views on the programming language Algol assume its European origins. However, the inability to exchange information between computers affected both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas Algol promoters sought to create one universal programming language, other approaches sought to preserve a variety of languages and create a general translation system. Therefore, the polarity was not between programming languages, but uniformity versus diversity.

Book Reviews

Review of What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing, by Ed Finn. Technology and Culture, 59, 3 (2018): 811-813.

Review of Turing’s Revolution: The Impact of His Ideas about Computability by Giovanni Sommaruga, Thomas Strahm (editors). Isis, 108, 2 (2017): 486-487.

Review of It Began with Babbage: The Genesis of Computer Science, by Subrata Dasgupta. Technology and Culture, 56, 2 (2015): 537-538.