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Communications of the ACM


Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science

Donald Knuth reading 'The Art of Computer Programming'


Editor's note: On May 7, 2014, Don Knuth delivered that year's Kailath Lecturea at Stanford University to a packed auditorium. In it he decried the absence of technical content from the histories of computer science being written, and he made an impassioned plea for historians of computer science to get back on track, as the historians of mathematics have always been.

Both the videob and, now, the verbatim transcriptc of that talk are online. In the January 2015 issue of Communications,d historian Thomas Haigh analyzed and responded to the talk, concluding that "work of the particular kind preferred by Knuth will flourish only if his colleagues in computer science are willing to produce, reward, or commission it."


Herbert Bruderer

Donald Knuth rightly points out the unsatisfactory role of today's history of technology. I deal with this problem in detail in chapter 17 of my new book Milestones in Analog and Digital Computing (, pages 823-837).

The chapter Technological, Economic, Social, and Cultural History illustrates the role and the transformation of technological and scientific history. The history of science and technology is now mostly presented within the scope of the humanities, frequently with emphasis on the economic and social aspects and consequently not able to satisfy a number of requirements. Although technology and science greatly influence our lives, very few academic chairs and courses of study are concerned with their history. In spite of this, deeper specialized scientific and technical knowledge is decisive for museums and other collections, especially for preserving the cultural heritage. For some time, there has been a renewed revival of interest in material history. (abstract of chapter 17, translated by John McMinn).

Bruderer H. (2020) Technological, Economic, Social, and Cultural History. In: Milestones in Analog and Digital Computing. Springer, Cham.

An example of my research: In the university archives we found the Zuse Z4 original contracts be-tween Konrad Zuse and the ETH Zurich (published in Chapter 24 of my book: Documents Rele-vant to the Z4 and Ermeth) and we recently discovered the long lost Z4 user manual (Discovery: User Manual of the Oldest Surviving Computer in the World | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM) and the almost unknown Russian translation of Heinz Rutishausers leading book on the building of computing machines (Tracking Down a Seminal Work on Computer Construction in Russian | blog@CACM | Communications of the ACM). From 1950 to 1955 the Z4 Zuse relay computer was used at ETH Zurich for more than 50 tasks. There is a detailed list in my book Kon-rad Zuse und die Schweiz ( Unfortunately, it was not yet possible to find the software programs for this until today.

A big problem with the history of technology is the lack of appreciation. Moreover, it is not easy to find a suitable publisher. So I could not find a sponsor for the English translation.

Herbert Bruderer
January 30, 2021

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