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The Origins of Computer Programming

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129828D
Original Publication Date: 1994-Dec-01
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 13 page(s) / 50K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

BRIAN RANDELL: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

This article describes some of the early developments that can now be viewed as steps toward the development of program control and the modern concept of a stored program. In particular, it discusses early automatic devices, Babbage's contributions set against a background of the technology of his day, the contributions of some of his direct successors, and the genesis of the stored-program idea.

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

This record contains textual material that is copyright ©; 1994 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Contact the IEEE Computer Society http://www.computer.org/ (714-821-8380) for copies of the complete work that was the source of this textual material and for all use beyond that as a record from the SPI Database.

The Origins of Computer Programming

BRIAN RANDELL

This article describes some of the early developments that can now be viewed as steps toward the development of program control and the modern concept of a stored program. In particular, it discusses early automatic devices, Babbage's contributions set against a background of the technology of his day, the contributions of some of his direct successors, and the genesis of the stored-program idea.

This article concerns the prehistory of programming and some of the major developments that occurred en route to the development of the stored-program concept, but does not attempt to provide a complete history of the subject. Indeed, given the difficulty of assessing the extent to which any given achievement affected later developments, this account will be more in the nature of a partial chronology than a history. However, I have tried to avoid the standard pitfall of a chronology -- that of becoming mainly a catalog of claimed "firsts." Such identifications are often misleading and controversial; in any case, with enough qualifications, almost anything can be so categorized.

Another pitfall I have attempted to avoid is that of giving just a "Whig interpretation" of history. Quoting Cohen:1

Whig historians produced chronicles of the heroes of the past, whose achievements were celebrated because they did well on a scale of values determined by the degree of accord with a present state of scientific knowledge and belief.... Historians of science since the 1950s have generally abandoned [ this approach to history because ] they have come to see the advantages of studying the scientific thought of the past in the direct terms of the problems and intellectual currents of the time under which any work was done, rather than merely "grading" it in a schoolmasterish way in terms of its degree of accord with the present.

Thus, though this brief account has no pretensions to advancing the state of historical investigations into the origins of programming, it does aim to provide at least some brief explanations of the nature and extent of the intellectual and technical achievements that were involved in a few selected developments. However, it is important to realize that many of these particular developments have been selected more because I personally find them interesting than because of any contemporary importance or subsequent influence that I might believe or hope they have had.

Early automata

One of the difficulties of discussing the historical origins of a subject is to de...