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Let’s Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science

Let’s Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science

An edited transcript of a talk given in 2014 by Donald Knuth (of The Art of Computer Programming fame), where he discusses the paucity of study and analysis of how computers, the software that runs on them, and the development of said software, has progressed over the years.

GIVING THIS TALK might be the greatest mistake in my life, because I’m going to talk about controversial things. I generally go out of my way to avoid argument whenever possible. But I feel so strongly about this that I just have to vent and say it.

Although there is “history” in the title, I’m not going to tell you about the history of computer science. Instead, I’m going to talk about historians of computer science–about historiography. This is meta-history. I’m going to try to explain why I love to read works on history, and why I’m profoundly disturbed by recent trends in what I’ve been reading.

Knuth gives examples of the gaps that exist in our knowledge of this history, and offers up suggestions of where to look for the information to plug those gaps.

There are many wonderful algorithms and source codes whose histories are completely untouched. If we technicians can study and explain them in depth, then historians will at least have material to which they can later add the breadth.

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