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Computing: A Concise History

by Paul E. Ceruzzi
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012
175 pp., illus. 14 b/w. e-Book, $11.95, £9.95
ISBN-10:0-262-51767-1; ISBN-13: 978-0-262-51767-6.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Paul Ceruzzi, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, has written extensively on computer history. See, for example, A History of Modern Computing (2003, second edition) and Internet Alley: High Technology in Tyson's Corner, 1945-2005 (2011), both published by The MIT Press. His most recent publication, Computing: A Concise History, rather than a specialist text, provides a concise overview for a knowledgeable audience.

To many, the history of computing may seem the story of hardware and software developments from mainframe to social media involving big companies with household name recognition. Ceruzzi, however, offers a more compelling narrative, one that is broader and more useful. He identifies four threads running throughout the development of all computer technology: digitization, convergence, solid-state electronics, and the human-machine interface.

By digitization, Ceruzzi refers to the notion of coding information, computation, and control in binary form, using 1s and 0s. Although traceable back to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibinz (1646-1716), Ceruzzi notes that the so-called "digital" method of control, storage, and calculation was not widely used until the 1930s, and then concurrent with "analogue," from which it was not so different until changing electrical states (on or off) were used for communication, a capability not offered by earlier computers.

The convergence thread speaks to many different techniques and technologies, each coming from its separate historical development background, merging into devices capable of performing many different tasks. The result, combined with digitization, is something far more than the sum of individual parts, which, once it surpasses a technical threshold can quickly overtake existent technologies and render them obsolete.

Solid-state electronics allowed computer technology to constantly increase in speed and storage capacity, while decreasing in size, according to Ceruzzi. This begs the question of technological determinism, that technological advances drive history, versus social and political forces driving innovations, thus shaping society, and Ceruzzi argues that both are valid by providing interesting and relevant examples.

The human-machine interface, according the Ceruzzi, goes to the philosophical roots of computing by asking whether, when constructing computer machines, we are trying to create mechanical replacements for humanity, or a tool that works with us in symbiosis. How does one design a machine that takes advantage of humankind's motor skills, our ability to sense patterns, all while providing information we are not good at retaining?

These four threads, taken together, provide the weft and weave of Cerruzi's concise history of the digital information age. His account follows the computer from a room-sized machine to minicomputer to desktop computer to pocket-sized smart phone, each driven by silicon chips, ever decreasing in size while dramatically increasing the machine's ability to control, store, calculate, and communicate data.

For those interested in the fundamentals of computer history, Computing: A Concise History navigates a complex world with in-depth, authoritative coverage in terms accessible to the non-expert.

Last Updated 2 August 2012

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