It is a fact that for many computer professionals, from academia and industry, computer history is a niche topic that has little to no influence on their everyday life. Computer history is a topic that you might meet with nostalgia (remembering the good old times), disbelief (how did we ever work like this?) or maybe even fascination.
At the Heinz Nixdorf Museums Forum (HNF) in Paderborn, Germany (one of the largest computer museums worldwide) we believe that the knowledge about the history of computers is not just interesting to the wider public but should be an essential basis of all careers in IT. Working together, the museum and Paderborn University have developed a computer history lecture for computer science degree students and invited them to learn about their professional heritage directly at the museum, with hands-on programming on C64 hardware.
Why have I never heard of this?
During my studies, I was involved in multiple projects for the museum and started to get interested in the history of computers. Whenever I learned something new, I was amazed and asked myself: ‘Why have I never heard of this?’ I was already about to finish my master’s degree and thought that I had quite a good understanding of my field. But the more I learned, the more I realised, I knew nothing.
Out of this interest for the topic, the idea of passing along my newly learned knowledge lead to putting together a completely new lecture, History of Computer Systems, that I first gave in the winter term of 2016. While the initial reason for creating such a lecture was out of pure interest for the topic, I quickly realised that there was much more to it; I felt that my professional education was missing a crucial part.
Why would anyone care about computer history?
The September 2019 issue of ITNOW focused on ‘learning from the past’ and gave good reasons why computer history is of interest not only to historians. Most voices, however, focused on the fascination about old computers and how this fascination can be used to get young people interested in computer science in general. While this is certainly true, the importance of computer history reaches much further than just being a way of getting people interested.
From years of learning about computer history and giving the lecture, I have concluded that this knowledge is of fundamental importance for every computer scientist for a couple of reasons:
Understanding the future
Only with knowledge of the past are we able to understand and assess current and future developments. As this evolution is getting ever faster and more and more parts of our lives are affected by computers, the ability to put things into perspective and to assess the value and the risks of new technologies is becoming increasingly important to all IT professionals. A good understanding of the path that led to this development can be extremely helpful and in my lectures, I always try to make the connection between historic technologies and current developments.
Knowing why things are the way they are
Another reason why computer history should be a part of every computer science curriculum is because it gives an answer to the question ‘why?’. Computer science sources typically focus on explaining the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of algorithms, data structures or general concepts – but ‘why’ these things are the way they are is not usually explained.
In learning about the history of computers, I understood the field of computer science and my own studies so much better, because I finally understood the basics. Instead of just knowing how Boolean algebra works, I now know why it is like this and can therefore appreciate it that much more. Students who understand the basis behind their studies and can see that the ‘facts’ they learn are not just given, but have developed out of lively scientific discussion, are much more able to appreciate their field and are therefore more motivated to learn new things and to be involved in the scientific development.
Appreciating the beauty of simplicity
Finally, a knowledge of computer history can help with understanding the basic principles of computing. Where in the 1980s, using a computer meant using a BASIC prompt and typing programs from magazines, today we have bachelor students that don't know what an editor or a file is - because modern computers can be used without that knowledge.
While this increase in abstraction is the main reason for the success of computers, for computer science students, this is undoubtably a problem. Modern computers with their powerful processors, operating systems and networking capabilities have become so complex that they cannot be used without such levels of abstraction. In order to learn the basic principles that these computers are based on, this complexity, however, is debilitating.
Learning how to program a home computer like the C64 is a much better choice for teaching the basic principles of computer architecture because it allows the student to directly interact with the hardware without all the layers of abstraction.
The future of computer history
Today, computer history is a niche topic and courses at university level are rare. However, I believe that it would be beneficial for all computer science students to learn about the origins of their own field of interest - because of the reasons listed above, and many more not covered in this article. We have already broadly accepted that programming and algorithmic thinking has become the new cultural technique of our days. We should therefore also accept that our history must now also include the history of computers.
Computer museums can play a central role in this field. They already offer a learning place for the wider public to engage and often have programmes to educate school children. But they should also reach out to universities to ensure that computer history is part of the academic curriculum.
Our profession has become old enough to have a history. We should embrace this history as a vital part of our professional culture and pass it on to the next generation.
Johannes Blobel and Dr. Jochen Viehoff will be talking at a Computer Conservation Society event entitled the Role of Computer Museums and Studying Computer Science on October 17 2.00pm to 5.00pm at the BCS London office.
About the museum
The Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum (HNF) in Paderborn, Germany, was opened in 1996 and is one of the largest computer museums worldwide. The museum consists of over 6000m² exhibiting the evolution of computer science, with a combined history of over 5000 years. The museum also offers a wide range of educational courses and lectures for the general public, pupils and students alike.