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Hardcover | $30.00 Short | £20.95 | ISBN: 9780262050937 | 336 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 16 b&w illus.| August 2010
Paperback | $18.00 Short | £12.95 | ISBN: 9780262517966 | 336 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 16 b&w illus.| August 2012

The Computer Boys Take Over

Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise


Like all great social and technological developments, the "computer revolution" of the twentieth century didn't just happen. People—not impersonal processes—made it happen. In The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger describes the emergence of the technical specialists—computer programmers, systems analysts, and data processing managers—who helped transform the electronic digital computer from a scientific curiosity into the most powerful and ubiquitous technology of the modern era. They did so not as inventors from the traditional mold, but as the developers of the "software" (broadly defined to include programs, procedures, and practices) that integrated the novel technology of electronic computing into existing social, political, and technological networks. As mediators between the technical system (the computer) and its social environment (existing structures and practices), these specialists became a focus for opposition to the use of new information technologies. To many of their contemporaries, it seemed the "computer boys" were taking over, not just in the corporate setting, but also in government, politics, and society in general.

Ensmenger follows the rise of the computer boys as they struggled to establish a role for themselves within traditional organizational, professional, and academic hierarchies. He describes the tensions that emerged between the craft-centered practices of vocational programmers, the increasingly theoretical agenda of academic computer science, and the desire of corporate managers to control and routinize the process of software development. In doing so, he provides a human perspective on what is too often treated as a purely technological phenomenon.

About the Author

Nathan Ensmenger is Associate Professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University.

Table of Contents

  • The Computer Boys Take Over
  • History of Computing
  • William Aspray, editor
  • John Agar
  • The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer
  • William Aspray
  • John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing
  • William Aspray and Paul E. Ceruzzi, editors
  • The Internet and American Business
  • Charles J. Bashe, Lyle R. Johnson, John H. Palmer, and Emerson W. Pugh
  • IBM’s Early Computers
  • Martin Campbell-Kelly
  • From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry
  • Paul E. Ceruzzi
  • A History of Modern Computing
  • I. Bernard Cohen
  • Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer
  • I. Bernard Cohen and Gregory W. Welch, editors
  • Makin’ Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer
  • Nathan Ensmenger
  • The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise
  • John Hendry
  • Innovating for Failure: Government Policy and the Early British Computer Industry
  • Michael Lindgren
  • Glory and Failure: The Difference Engines of Johann Müller, Charles Babbage, and Georg and Edvard Scheutz
  • David E. Lundstrom
  • A Few Good Men from Univac
  • René Moreau
  • The Computer Comes of Age: The People, the Hardware, and the Software
  • Arthur L. Norberg
  • Computers and Commerce: A Study of Technology and Management at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company, Engineering Research Associates, and Remington Rand, 1946–1957
  • Emerson W. Pugh
  • Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and Its Technology
  • Emerson W. Pugh
  • Memories That Shaped an Industry
  • Emerson W. Pugh, Lyle R. Johnson, and John H. Palmer
  • IBM’s 360 and Early 370 Systems
  • Kent C. Redmond and Thomas M. Smith
  • From Whirlwind to MITRE: The R&D Story of the SAGE Air Defense Computer
  • Alex Roland with Philip Shiman
  • Strategic Computing: DARPA and the Quest for Machine Intelligence, 1983–1993
  • Raúl Rojas and Ulf Hashagen, editors
  • The First Computers: History and Architectures
  • Dorothy Stein
  • Ada: A Life and a Legacy
  • John Vardalas
  • The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence, 1945–1980
  • Maurice V. Wilkes
  • Memoirs of a Computer Pioneer
  • The Computer Boys Take Over
  • Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise
  • Nathan Ensmenger
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • © 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email special_sales
  • This book was set in Sabon by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Ensmenger, Nathan, 1972–
  • The computer boys take over : computers, programmers, and the politics of technical expertise / Nathan Ensmenger.
  •  p. cm.—(History of computing)
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-05093-7 (hardcover : alk. paper)  1. Computer programming. 2. Computer programmers. 3. Software engineering—History. 4. Computer software—Development—Social aspects.  I. Title.
  • QA76.6.E58 2010
  • 005.1—dc22
  • 2009052638
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
  • For Deborah and the boys
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • 1 Introduction: Computer Revolutionaries 1
  • 2 The Black Art of Programming 27
  • 3 Chess Players, Music Lovers, and Mathematicians 51
  • 4 Tower of Babel 83
  • 5 The Rise of Computer Science 111
  • 6 The Cosa Nostra of the Data Processing Industry 137
  • 7 The Professionalization of Programming 163
  • 8 Engineering a Solution 195
  • 9 Conclusions: Visible Technicians 223
  • Notes 245
  • Bibliography 287
  • Index 315


“...Ensmenger has crafted an orderly and well organized argument that the dynamics of managing computer firms have often been as complex as the subject matter itself... In this important way, The Computer Boys Take Over is learned, well-documented with citations, and often humorous—with numerous period cartoons and company advertisements that nicely support the text. Such a study of computing’s early and arguably most important years, is long overdue.” —High Tech History blog


"The Computer Boys Take Over rewrites the history of computing by recounting the development of software in terms of labor, gender, and professionalization. Ensmenger meets the long-standing challenge to reform computer history by employing themes of vital interest to the general history of science and technology."
Ronald Kline, Bovay Professor in History and Ethics of Engineering, Cornell University

"The Computer Boys Take Over shows how computer programmers struggled for professional legitimacy and organizational recognition from the early days of ENIAC through the $300 billion Y2K crisis. Ensmenger's descriptions of 'computer science' and 'software engineering,' as well as his portraits of Maurice Wilkes, Alan Turing, John Backus, Edsger Dijkstra, Fred Brooks, and other pioneers, give a compelling introduction to the field."
Thomas J. Misa, director of the Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota

"This book provides the most holistic approach to the history of the development of programming and computer systems so far written. By embedding this history in a sociological and political context, Professor Ensmenger has added hugely to our understanding of how the world of computing and its work practices came to be."
Martin Campbell-Kelly, Professor of Computer Science, Warwick University