I have a relatively large collection of books on science and technology, including the history thereof. There are many reasons for this set of interests, but certainly one of them is that in our research on collaboration we have studied scientific collaboration a lot. In order to study such collaboration, one must learn something about the science itself. I suppose the other major reason for this interest is that from the 17th century on science has been a major part of history, and therefore an allied component to any interest in modern history.
David Alan Grier. When Computers Were Human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
I don’t think it is widely known that the term “computer” was first used to refer to people (alas, mostly women) who historically carried out large scale computing projects. Grier presents the remarkable history of the phenomena associated with humans doing computation. Though there are hints that such phenomena go back to the ancients, the widespread use of humans to do computations has at least a 200-year history. In the 18th century humans were used to calculate the information required to predict the return of Halley’s comet. Such astronomical calculations continued to use human computers up until the mid 20th century. Such uses of humans to calculate tables of information for a wide range of scientific and engineering flourished in the 19th and early 20th century. Interestingly, Grier discovered that his own grandmother, who got a mathematics degree in the early 20th century from the University of Michigan, was a classmate of five other women who went on the perform computing tasks of the sort Grier goes on the document in great detail. Altogether, an amazing set of stories.
Andrew Hodges. Alan Turing: The Enigma. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. [Centenary Edition in 2012 with new preface by the author]
This is the definitive biography of Turing. He is the pioneer of so much about computing, both theoretically and practically. He developed theoretical frameworks — the Turing Machine, the Turing Test among them — that have influenced so much subsequent thinking. He participated in the building of several computing machines, both during World War II and afterwards. His role in the decryption of the Nazi codes during World War II was noteworthy, though Hodges — much better than the movie The Imitation Game — does a much better job of articulating the roles of all of those involved in this key effort. And of course his tragic entanglements due to his homosexuality are a vivid illustration of the biases and practices of an earlier era. Read Hodges superb biography for a proper account of this interesting and complex man.
Walter Isaacson. Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Walter Isaacson is one of my favorite biographers — more of his books will be appearing here soon. This one I read when it first came out, and I was recently motivated (2017) to read it again. I almost always love rereading — especially books that I marked up before. Isaacson’s account of Einstein is masterful, in that he not only recounts the details of Einstein’s life, but goes into great detail about his ideas. And Einstein’s ideas have of course puzzled many. But Isaacson is masterful in explaining them in terms we can mostly understand. This is so appropriate for Einstein, who reveled in thought experiments to generate his ideas, even if they were eventually cast in complex mathematical terms. He often had help from others, including his first wife, with the latter, and even late in life complained that he didn’t know enough math. His life was so tangled up in the events of history — his strong pacifism during World War I, his early and growing persecution with the rise of Hitler in Germany, his flight to the US in the early 1930s, his involvement with the early stages of the development of the atomic bomb, including his famous letter to Roosevelt, his interactions with Zionists and the emergence of Israel (even being offered the Presidency of that land in the early 1950s), and his encounters with the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. He had an intense curiosity, a deep non-conformist attitude, and a belief in the underlying wonder and beauty of the natural world. After his numerous early breakthroughs, particularly the special and general theories of relativity, his later long-lasting pursuit of a unified field theory led nowhere. Yet he was making notes about this in his hospital bed in his last hours. He is certainly one of the most extraordinary personas of the 20th century.
Jennifer Potter. Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.
This most interesting family plays a peculiar role in the history of science. John the elder, and his son the younger, and the latter’s wife Hester, were passionate collectors of all manner of curiosities. Their extraordinary collection later became the basis of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The reason for the name of the museum is that Elias Ashmole essentially hoodwinked Hester out of ownership of the collection, and then “generously” donated the collection to Oxford. Potter’s fascinating biography traces the ins and outs of this curious family. By the way, all of this happens in the 17th century!
Margot Lee Shetterly. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.
This is a truly remarkable book, about computers who are human, in this case, black women who were an integral part of aviation research in the 1940s and 1950s, and the space race in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond. They were first hired during World War II, when a shortage of male talent led to the hiring of women trained in mathematics, including many from black colleges and schools. They were hired into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The black women were organized into a segregated group, the West Area Computers, where they carried out mathematical calculations that helped refine the performance of World War II aircraft. The book traces the remarkable history of extraordinary talent sequestered in a segregated organization, living in a segregated state, yet making landmark contributions to the science and engineering of aviation in the 1940s and 1950s, and the conquest of space after that. While the Langley Laboratory slowly integrated itself, though with many challenges, the state of Virginia around it was one of the most segregated of all of them. Virginia defied Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and even went so far in Prince Edward County to take away all funding of public schools from 1959 to 1964 rather than integrate them. But the black women computers strove on, contributing magnificently to the Mercury space program and the later Gemini and Apollo programs. As digital computers began supplementing and then replacing the human computers, it was black women who were charged with checking the output of the digital computers to make sure they were working correctly. They evolved into FORTRAN programmers, and indeed did the key calculations behind the Apollo moon landings. As the author says in the Epilogue, the most surprising question of all is why we did not know all of this until now. That’s what many who exit the movie version of this also say.
This is an amazing example of the story of humans as computers that is described more broadly in David Alan Grier’s book, When Computers Were Human, reviewed above.
Rebecca Solnit. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Eadweard Muybridge was a truly extraordinary person. His major claim to fame is coming up with methods for taking high speed photographs. One of the classic uses of these methods was to settle a bet involving Leland Stanford as to whether while galloping there is ever a time when all of the horse’s feet were off the ground. Stanford let him set up his cameras at his ranch in Palo Alto (later the site of Stanford University), and the resulting high speed photos showed that indeed there were moments when all of the horses feet were off the ground. This technology was at the heart of the emergence of the motion picture industry. Muybridge of course photographed many other things than galloping horses. His studies of animals and people in motion are justifiably famous. We even have a volume of his photographs in our art collection. Solnit argues in this interesting volume that Muybridge was part and parcel of a uniquely Californian environment that led to not just the movie industry but eventually Silicon Valley. Muybridge himself is a fascinating character, and Solnit captures in beautiful prose the many facets of this man’s most interesting life.
Laura J. Snyder. Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016.
This interesting volume explores how the emergence of optical instruments changed how both artists and scientists came to see the world. Leeuwenhoek, of course, carried out an amazing array of observations using a microscope. Vermeer is now widely believed to have used a camera obscura to create images of the world that he could study, and perhaps even copy (though this latter claim is controversial). Along with Grayling’s The Age of Genius, this book got me interested in reading more widely about the 17th century.
Tom Standage. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. New York: Walker & Company, 1998.
Telegraphy is an interesting interim technology that had important characteristics of both what came before and after. Standage reviews its interesting history, from optical versions to electrical ones, with widespread skepticism about whether this was a workable idea. But when it finally emerged as something that worked, it was remarkable in its influence. From a world where the fastest means of communication were horseback riders on land and ships at sea, the telegraph made more or less instantaneous worldwide communication possible across the entire planet. It radically transformed business, stock markets, shipping, railroads, newspapers, diplomacy, and so many other things. The idea that information could be conveyed almost instantaneously, had a profound impact on a world where information flows had previously been measured in days, weeks, and months. Now it was seconds. And, of course, those bent on evil figured out a wide variety of ways to take advantage of this change. What’s most remarkable about this technology is that although there were attempts in the early 19th century, it was not until about 1850 that these things actually worked and propagated. Yet by the turn of the century, the telephone essentially silenced this medium. I know that in my youth, you could still send a telegram — mid 20th century. But it was a fringe medium. And, in so many ways, as Standage points out, it parallels things like e-mail and the Internet in the 20th century. As both Henry Petroski and Vint Cerf say on the cover blurb of the early hardback version that I own, “I was simply fascinated by this book.”
Donald E. Stokes. Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1997.
This volume, which I read around the time it came out, has had an enormous impact on my world view. It contrasts the traditional linear view of the relationship between applied and basic science with a new proposal, namely, that the pursuit of basic knowledge and the solving of practical problems are two dimensions of a 2×2 table. A given kind of investigation can be high or low on either dimension. His examples are Niels Bohr, high on basic knowledge but essentially not interested in applications. Thomas Edison is low on basic knowledge but high on applications. His poster child, Pasteur, is high on both, seeking both to help French farmers but also interested in figuring out why. I’ve long felt that the best HCI and CSCW research occupies Pasteur’s Quadrant. An interesting quadrant is the one that is low on both. I came to believe that someone like John Tradescant (both the Elder and the Younger) who systematically collected all kinds of things with no particular goal in mind is an example. This collection became the basis of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, which of course has been a valuable resource for all kinds of scholars. A fascinating read about the Tradescants and Elias Ashmole, who appropriated the Tradescant collection and gave it to Oxford (hence the name of the museum) is Jennifer Potter, Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants, which I describe in more detail above.
Andrea Wulf. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
As Andrea Wulf points out, Alexander von Humboldt is hardly remembered in the English-speaking world. Yet he was one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century. The centenary of his birth in 1969 was celebrated all over the planet, including in the US. Yet today few know who he was. Yet he was amazingly influential. Darwin would not have gone on his cruise aboard the Beagle if he had not read Humboldt’s work. Ditto for Henry David Thoreau. He almost single-handedly created the science of “ecology,” so dubbed by one of his many admirers, Ernst Haeckel. John Muir’s life was totally influenced by his reading and rereading of Humboldt. Wulf’s book is a masterpiece. She covers his amazing, long life (he died just short of his 90th birthday), and his rich interactions with contemporaries like Goethe, Simon Bolivar, and Thomas Jefferson. His views of the unity of nature and the meshing of science and art are to this day extraordinary and insightful.