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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

The Tears of Donald Knuth


Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth

Credit: Rajan P. Parrikar

In this column I will be looking at the changing relationship between the discipline of computer science and the growing body of scholarly work on the history of computing, beginning with a recent plea made by renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth. This provides an opportunity to point you toward some interesting recent work on the history of computer science and to think more broadly about what the history of computing is, who is writing it, and for whom they are writing.

Last year historians of computing heard an odd rumor: that Knuth had given the Kailath lecture at Stanford University and spent the whole time talking about us. Its title, "Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science," was certainly intriguing, and its abstract confirmed that some forceful positions were being taken.a The online video eventually showed something remarkable: his lecture focused on a single paper, Martin Campbell-Kelly's 2007 "The History of the History of Software."6,b Reading it had deeply saddened Knuth, who "finished reading it only with great difficulty" through his tear-stained glasses.


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