The history of computer software, told by a senior technology writer for the New York Times.
Software arose after WWII along with the first computers. Early programming was handled by squads of technicians, mostly young women, who custom-wired early machines such as ENIAC for each new calculation. Then John von Neumann, a mathematician working for the Manhattan Project, postulated the idea of a “stored program,” permanent instructions built into the machine. This concept allowed engineers to build a general-purpose contraption into which programmers could feed instructions on punch cards or paper tape for specific tasks. The next step came in the mid-1950s, when an IBM team led by John Backus created Fortran. A strange blend of shorthand and math that allowed ordinary users to write programs, Fortran (a contraction of “formula translator”) opened the door to almost everything that has followed. Lohr profiles the members of Backus's team and gives a taste of how the language works. He follows the same formula with other languages from Cobol (designed as a business applications language) to Unix (which led the way to non-mainframe computing). BASIC taught millions of ordinary users the rudiments of programming on simple home machines. Later, the software emphasis shifted to applications: word processors, spreadsheets, and database managers. A more sophisticated generation of home users now happily program in Java and HTML. Today's frontier is the Open Source movement, whose adherents tinker with the code of such software as Linux. The rhetoric of open source is revolutionary, with the likes of Microsoft as the class enemy, but the battle is far from over. Stay tuned.
A clear and colorful look at the people and programs that have shaped the computer era.