You are here

The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise

Nathan Ensmenger
MIT Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
, on

This is an interesting and often-exasperating look at the history of software development, concentrating on the social, business, and economic forces that shaped the profession. It concentrates on business data processing, with some coverage of system software and scientific applications. For some unexplained reason the history stops around the year 1970. Computers have evolved almost unrecognizably since then, and while the software profession has not changed quite as drastically, the entire shrink-wrap software industry, desktop computers, and all kinds of electronic gadgets that use embedded computers and software started after 1970 and are not mentioned here.

A Very Bad Feature is that the book often repeats itself, with the same or very similar wording. This gives the reader a dizzying sense of déjà vu. This bad habit is most conspicuous in quotations; rather than refer to the earlier quotation or summarize it, the book simply repeats it. One quotation by Maurice Wilkes appears four times. The demise of the AFIPS organization is described twice, two pages apart. A 1967 article in Cosmopolitan on “computer girls” is given two lengthy summaries with the same details in a different order.

This is a scholarly book and is extensively footnoted. Unfortunately many of the author names in the footnotes are misspelled; mysteriously nearly all of the names misspelled in the footnotes are correct in the bibliography. The book seems very accurate otherwise; the only really confused section has to do with the chronology of Fred Brooks, manager of the System/360 project and its operating system subproject OS/360 at IBM. The book has him managing OS/360 “in the late 1960s”, and writing his famous 1975 book The Mythical Man-Month while “a technical manager in a conservative corporation”. In fact Brooks left IBM in 1965 to join the faculty of the University of North Carolina, where he remains today.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist and retired software developer. He is webmaster and newsletter editor for the MAA Southwestern Section and is an editor of the Missouri Journal of Mathematical Sciences. His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis. He volunteers in his spare time at, a math help site that fosters inquiry learning.

  • Acknowledgments
  1. Introduction: Computer Revolutionaries
  2. The Black Art of Programming
  3. Chess Players, Music Lovers, and Mathematicians
  4. Tower of Babel
  5. The Rise of Computer Science
  6. The Cosa Nostra of the Data Processing Industry
  7. The Professionalization of Programming
  8. Engineering a Solution
  9. Conclusions: Visible Technicians
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index