Exploring the Early Digital — Springer

The first book from the Early Digital workshop series, this volume is edited by Thomas Haigh  based on workshops held at Siegen University in June 2016 and January 2017. It will be published by Springer in two series: the History of Computing Series, edited by Gerard Alberts and the Medien der Kooperation series edited by Erhard Schüttpelz.


This volume opens up a new intellectual space at the intersection of the history of computing and media studies. From its origins in the community of computing pioneers in the 1970s, the history of computing has grown into a lively and diverse scholarly area. An early focus on scientific computation and great machines has given way to work informed by the history of technology, business history, and user studies. Many of the scholars who led these transformations are contributors to this volume.

Changes in the present challenge us to reinterpret the past, but historians have not yet come to grips with the convergence of computing, media, and communications technology. Today these things are inextricably intertwined, in technologies such as the smartphone and internet, in convergent industries, and in social practices. Yet they remain three distinct historical subfields, tilled by different groups of scholars using different tools. We often call this conglomeration “the digital,” recognizing its deep connection to the technology of digital computing. Unfortunately, interdisciplinary studies of digital practices, digital methods, or digital humanities have rarely been informed by deep engagement with the history of computing.

Contributors to this volume have come together to reexamine an apparently familiar era in the history of computing though new lenses, exploring early digital computing and engineering practice as digital phenomena rather than as engines of mathematics and logic. Most focus on the period 1945 to 1960, the era in which the first electronic digital computers were created and the computer industry began to develop. Because digitality is first and foremost a way of reading objects and encoding information within them, we are foregrounding topics that have until now been viewed as peripheral in the history of computing: betting odds calculators, card file systems, program and data storage, programmable calculators, and digital circuit design practices. Reconceptualizing the “history of computing” as study of the “early digital” decenters the stored program computer, repositioning it as one of many digital technologies.

Several of the chapters point the way towards a reengagement by the history of computing community with the historical materiality and technological affordances of digital technologies. In recent decades, historians of computing have moved steadily away from technical discussion in an attempt to better align their work with fields such as business history and the history of technology and to distance it from the reminiscences of the elderly computer scientists. Ironically, scholars in booming fields such as media archaeology and platform studies have attempted to move in the other direction, from backgrounds in media or critical theory, to engagement with the internals of digital technology. Putting these efforts on strong historical and technical foundations will benefit all concerned.

We hope that the Early Digital approach showcased for the first time in this volume will take on a life of its own, and have already launched several follow up projects underway to explore it from different disciplinary perspectives. This volume is an initial foray, written primarily from inside the established history of computing community but oriented towards other broader audiences.

Chapters and Contributors

The arrangement of chapters within the volume creates a logical flow. We begin with Kline’s foundational discussion of the history of “digital” as an engineering concept. The next three chapters explore particular digital practices and technologies other than those of the electronic computer: card filing systems, golf simulators, circuit design, and so on. The middle chapters explore the practices of early digital electronic computing, looking at ENIAC’s digital displays, EDVAC’s use practices, and the relationship of programs to digital media. The two final chapters look at crucial moments in the spread of digital practices and technologies through societies. One focuses on the USA, the other on the USSR.

  1. Thomas Haigh: Introduction. This will outline the concept of the “early digital” as a way of productively integrating history of computing with media and communications history, engage with some important work already published in the area, and weave discussion of the various contributions into a broad and provocative argument about the usefulness of “digital” as an analytical category for historians.
  2. Ronald Kline: Inventing an Analog Past and a Digital Future in Computing. Kline explores the origins of “digital” as an actor’s category in computing and communication. The term arose during the 1940s, with the spread of automatic computers. He locates it precisely in discussions between two early computer designers, to distinguish between analog and digital computers. Both kinds of machine could automate the solution of mathematical problems, whether at the desk, in the laboratory, or, as control equipment, in the field. But they represented the numerical quantitates they worked on in fundamentally different ways. Digital machines represented each quantity as a series of digits, mechanizing the arithmetic operations and arithmetic tricks used by humans. Analog machines were named with the idea that their internal elements corresponded to aspects of the system being modelled, like the elements of an analogy. Kline discusses proposed alternatives, such as discrete, early objections raised to the classification, and connects the origin of “digital” to the broader discourse around cybernetics.
  3. Doron Swade: Digital-Analog Themes in Pre-electronic Computational Machines: Betting, Gaming, and Calculation. Although the application of “digital” to computing and communication was new in the 1940s and bound up with automatic computers, many of the engineering techniques involved were older and arose in other contexts. In his chapter, Doron Swade explores several technologies from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including early calculators, a golf simulator, and the complicated hybrid analog/digital machines build to calculate gambling odds. This broadens the scope of digital materiality, both conceptually and chronologically.
  4. Paul Ceruzzi: Calvin Mooers, Zatocoding, and Early Research on Information Retrieval. Ceruzzi continues the exploration of non-electronic digital technologies with a look at a proprietary card-based indexing and retrieval system developed during the 1950s. Although its creator had been exposed to electronic computing in the 1940s, and his work was later influential in computing, the system itself encoded information as notches on cards rather than as electrons in circuits.
  5. Maarten Bullynck: The Engineer’s ‘Peculiar Sort of Frustration’, Coming to Grips with Shannon’s Boolean Algebra in the 1940s. Claude Shannon’s information theory is foundational to our understanding of “the digital” and to the modern sense of “information.” But in many circles Shannon is more often treated as a media theorist than as a communication engineer concerned with practical problems. Bullynck’s chapter looks deeper, exploring Shannon’s work to translate systems of Boolean algebra in networks of relay switches. Such circuits provided the building blocks of digital machines, including early computers. Bullynck suggests that it took a decade of work by practicing engineers, and the creation of new craft practices and diagramming techniques, to turn his work into a practical basis for digital electronic engineering. This reminds us that Shannon’s work had a very specific institutional and technological context, looking backward to new digital communication techniques developed during WWII and forward to anticipate the generalization of these as a new basis for routine telecommunication.
  6. Tristan Thielmann: The ENIAC Display: The Enigmatic, Public and Discrete Nature of Representing Trajectories. When scholars consider the digitality of digital computers they tend to focus on the representation system used and the mechanisms used to carry out arithmetic. The practices used to store and display data have received less attention. Theilmann combines perspectives from media studies and tools from ethnomethodology to explore the digital display systems of ENIAC, the first fully functional digital electronic computer.
  7. Martin Campbell-Kelly: The EDSAC Computer as Digital Infrastructure. Campbell-Kelly explores the variety of use practices that grew up around one of the very first general purpose digital computers, the EDVAC. Its users were the first to load programs from paper tape media into electronic memory, quickly devising a system that used the computer itself to translate mnemonics into machine code as it read the tape. Some practices from the first computer installations, such as the preparation of data and instructions in machine readable digital form, or the practice of debugging programs by tracing their operation one instruction at a time, spread with the machines themselves into many communities. Others, as Campbell-Kelly shows, were specific to particular areas of scientific practice and remained local.
  8. Mark Priestley and Thomas Haigh: The Media of Programming. Continuing the focus on media and practices in the early digital era, we explore the mechanisms used by digital computers to embody programs. High speed memories were the hardest part of early computers to build, and the rest of the machine tended to be designed around them. Digital computers carry out sequences of discrete operations over time. The sequence of operations, or “program,” to be carried out is encoded spatially within the machine. During their operation, differences within space are transformed into differences within time. ENIAC was wired with literal chains and branches, along which control pulses flowed from one unit to the next. Many other machines of the mid-1940s read coded instructions one at a time, from paper tape. These tapes could be physically looped to repeat sequences. Computers patterned after von Neumann’s conception for EDVAC stored coded instructions in one or another kind of addressable memory.
  9. William Aspray and Christopher Loughnane: Foregrounding the Background: Business, Economics, Labor, and Government Policy as Shaping Forces in Early Digital Computing History. The role of government and military bodies in the invention of digital computing is well understood – Britain’s Colossus, Zuse’s machines in Germany, and the ENIAC in America were built for and during the Second World War. But, with the exception of the (widely misunderstood) connection of what became the Internet to the military’s interest in building robust networks, the role of the state in the later exploitation and improvement of digital technology is less widely appreciated. Digital computers were sold commercially from the early 1950s, forming a large and fast-growing industry. Yet, as Aspray and Loughnane show, the state remained vitally important in structuring the early use of digital computers as a procurer of digital technologies, a sponsor of research, and a regulator of labor markets.
  10. Ksenia Tatarchenko: “The Man with a Micro-calculator:” Digital Modernity and Late Soviet Computing Practices. Shifting from the United States to the Soviet Union, Tatarchenko further broadens our sense of the “Early Digital.” This was not a single world-historic period sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, but a set of localized and partial transformations enacted again and again, around the world and through time, as digital technologies and practices were adopted by specific communities, for specific purposes. The sudden proliferation of digital computers through networks of hobbyists and amateurs in the mid-1970s, driven by a discourse of empowerment and revolution, is a centerpiece of US-centric accounts. Tatarchenko looks at the Late Soviet version of the populist Early Digital, which spread during the early 1980s and centered on a more obviously digital technology: the programmable calculator. Users coded programs, including games, as sequences of digits displayed on tiny screens.