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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

Prophets, Seers, and Pioneers

Prophets, Seers, and Pioneers, illustrative photo

Credit: Toni V / Shutterstock

In the 1970s, Chris Evans, a psychologist and computer scientist on the staff of the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, observed that many of the first-generation pioneers of modern computing; the people who can reasonably be crediting with laying the foundations of the digital age, were still with us. Chris conceived the idea that these people should be interviewed, and their recollections of the projects they led, the people they worked with, and the genesis of their ideas should be recorded for future generations. Tragically, aged only 48, Chris succumbed to cancer before he was able to complete the interview series he planned. Further interviews were carried out by Brian Randell, Simon Lavington, and others, but without intending any disservice to their sterling efforts, the conversations featuring Chris demonstrated standard of professionalism and ease within the milieu that really sets them apart.

The Evans interviews were released by the Science Museum, London,a as a set of 20 audio recordings under the title "The Pioneers of Computing." Almost 20 years ago, I became closely involved with the "Pioneers" series, transcribing, documenting, and annotating the interviews in collaboration with the Science Museum. One of the signature features of Chris Evans' interviewing technique was to conclude most of his recorded conversations with a couple of questions broadly concerned with prognostication. The first was to ask the interviewee to consider their state of mind at the time they were undertaking their pioneering work, and to say how they would have expected computing to have developed up to the present day (that is, the mid-1970s).


John Schlesinger

Wonderful article, and thanks for the optimism at the end.

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