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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

The Future of the Past


handwritten notes by M.H.A. Newman

Cracking German codes during World War II. Handwritten notes by M.H.A. Newman.

Credit: The Max Newman Digital Archive

Reflections on the changing face of the history of computing.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the July 2012 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/7/151227).
--CACM Administrator

David Anderson's Historical Reflections column "The Future of the Past" (May 2012) made a persuasive case for preserving computer hardware and software artifacts. I would add that computer science has not preserved its paper well, either; for example, when The American Federation of Information Processing Societies, the parent of both ACM and IEEE, folded in 1990, its records, periodicals collection, and books went to the dump, as did the records of the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, or MCC, a major consortium for which I worked in the 1980s. I welcome efforts such as those led by Bruce Damer, whose Digibarn Museum (http://www.digibarn.com/) houses paper materials, as well as working versions of vintage PC hardware and GUI software.

Computer science can do even more to preserve its legacy, encouraging and assisting ethnographers to look into technology development and use. Otherwise, future historians, as well as computer professionals, will be left to infer or guess how preserved artifacts were designed, used, and ultimately abandoned, much as we speculate today about the use of unearthed artifacts of ancient civilizations.

Jonathan Grudin
Redmond, WA


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