Craft tradition in the history of computer programming, 1974-2004

Martin, Ian (2006). Craft tradition in the history of computer programming, 1974-2004. In: Ethnographies of code workshop: Computer Programs as the Lived Work of Computer Programming, 30-31 Mar 2006, Lancaster, UK.


Relatively little has been written concerning a history of the work of computer programmers. Historians of computing have so far tended to focus their efforts on chronicling advances in computer hardware, providing biographical accounts of computing pioneers, or detailing the economic and social implications of widespread computer adoption. When a software perspective has been taken this, for the most part, has focused predominantly on finding a family-tree type history of programming languages. The few history of computing textbooks that provide a general overview of the field, for example Ceruzzi (1998) and Campbell-Kelly & Aspray (2004) dedicate relatively little space to software developments. Even Campbell-Kelly’s (2003) book devoted to the history of software doesn’t really concern itself with the processes and people involved in software production. Levy’s (2001) look at hackers as ‘heroes of the computer revolution’ is closest to a history of computer programming from a labour perspective, but this by design tends to focus on authenticating the legends, and possibly myths, of the early hacker celebrities of the programming world.

Nevertheless, there has been renewed interest from some quarters in writing an academic history of the people and processes involved in computer programming. Just what form that history might be has been the subject of spirited debate. The Dagstuhl Seminar 9635 on History of Software Engineering (Brennecke & Keil-Slawik, 1996), Mahoney (2004), and Zwerman (1999) are three key sources here that suggest what that history might be. It is from out of these debates that a credible proposal of writing a history from a labour perspective has emerged. This alternative “way of knowing” (Pickstone, 2000) the history of computer programming is one that I intend to take forward with an overall aim of providing some fresh insights that will contribute towards a broader history of computing.

The majority of the debates concerning software history have made use of the term software engineering, generally because they take as a common starting point the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Software Engineering conference of October 1968 that first popularised the term. However I am intentionally making use of the older term, computer programming, in this work. The name software engineering was deliberately chosen by NATO at that time to be provocative in order to stimulate debate. The term computer programming, whilst not without its own connotations, has a wider currency and is equally applicable to endeavours made by the hobbyist in the home as it is to large-scale business developments. It also provides a starting position pre-dating both the terms software and software engineering from which to chart the progress that has been made by interested parties in defining and stratifying the discipline. It is these attempts to define and professionalize the practice of computer programming away from a celebration of the craft skills of the individual that have motivated me to find a history of the occupation as one that can be seen to uphold certain craft traditions.

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