Scott M. Campbell, "Why Johnny Couldn't Program: Obsolescence and the History of Computing''

Joint Session: Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association & Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, York University, Toronto, 29 May, 2006.

Abstract: A new technology is never embraced immediately by all users. Instead, the uptake follows a curve from early to late adopters. Historians have studied the advantages of being a first-mover, but rarely do they consider the users who take up a technology long after others have done so. For example, in the immediate years following the invention of modern computers most scientists and engineers continued to use older, simpler, and cheaper techniques to solve numerical problems impossible by analytical means. Even though it was widely acknowledged that electronic computers which could produce solutions in seconds had rendered these techniques obsolete, most people continued to rely on mechanical desktop calculators, numerical tables, and mental stamina to calculate answers over periods of weeks or months. The first decade of electronic computing had little effect on the daily computational needs of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. For them, until the 1960s, a computer was still a person. This story can be partially explained with some straightforward reasons, but interesting aspects also exist that can shine a light on the meaning of obsolescence. I will explore this phenomena of late adoption using detailed examples taken from my research on the history of computer science in Canada.

Copyright 2006 © Scott M. Campbell