Journal of Design History review of ‘Computer’

Journal of Design History
July 17, 2011

The following is a condensed version of a review of ‘Computer’ which has been published online as ‘Advance Access’ to subscribers of the Journal of Design History, prior to its appearance in printed form:

This is a gem of a book. Atkinson, a reader in design at Sheffield Hallam University, has written a highly readable yet authoritative survey of computing history and its connections to the larger cultural forces that often invisibly guide how technology emerges from and propagates through a society. Atkinson sees these forces and, more specifically, the cultural products of these forces, as shaping the behaviours not only of the users but also of the designers, incorporating both ‘user’ and ‘maker’ into a framework that seeks an alternative to a simplistic ‘impact’ model of the user or the relentless incrementalism of Moore’s Law, which forms the epistemic substrate of the modern computer maker.

 Computer begins with an excellent introduction that explores several deep, foundational, historiographical issues that have plagued historians of computing since the field began. He bravely tackles one of the thorniest: ‘What is the first computer?’ His answer is subtle and refined, showing the ambiguity, for example, in even establishing a timeline of developments in which various groups, breathing roughly the same intellectual oxygen, each contributed important stones to a larger cathedral of technology, the electronic, digital, stored-program computer. Ultimately, Atkinson shows, there is no ‘first’ computer—as a concept, there is, as the philosophers of science would say ‘poor entity closure’, at least in the beginning when ‘first’ claims are made. What constitutes a ‘computer’ in the infancy of the field (1940s and early 1950s) was a highly fluid notion that really only solidified in the (internal, architectural) form we know today in about 1955.

 The selection of images is transcendent: Atkinson has chosen not only some of the ‘usual suspects’ in computer photography but also a great number of exciting new images not seen elsewhere (to my knowledge). The images are not only keyed to the text but also come with incisive captions that reveal Atkinson’s skill at cultural decoding of imagery.

 In summary, what emerges from Computer is a fascinating story of the progress in computer product design, accompanied by rare and illuminating photographs that show the wide gamut of changing maker and user perceptions of what this ‘universal machine’ could be. I think students of both design and computer history will benefit from the thoughtfulness of Atkinson’s work, especially the connections he makes between design and use, and I heartily recommend it.

Dag Spicer, Senior Curator Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA

The full review can be accessed online here (subscription required).



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