Sunday, January 24, 2010

760: on ceruzzi's the advent of commercial computing

Ceruzzi’s chapter [Ceruzzi, P.E. (2003.) The advent of commercial computing, 1945-1956. In A History of Modern Computing, 2nd Ed. Cambridge: MIT Press. 13-46] is curiously situated among the more futuristic claims of Wells and Bush.

In the chapter, which documents the evolution of computing from roughly 1945 to the late 1950s, we do find hints about society benefiting from computers – about the computer as "a device that one interacted with, a tool with which to augment one's intellectual efforts" (14).

More interesting, perhaps, is that Ceruzzi identifies a point in time at which the computer becomes something nearer to what Wells and Bush imagined, "regarding the UNIVAC as an information processing system, not a calculator” (30). And while not directly addressing the social implications of the paradigm shift, Ceruzzi notes, “[UNIVACs] replaced not only existing calculating machines, but also the people who tended them... Indeed, the analysis of the UNIVAC’s benefits was almost entirely case in terms of its ability to replace salaried clerks..." (30, 33).

To add context to the chapter, I went back through some old notes and discovered the following time line, which seems more interesting to me now when placed against Ceruzzi’s narrative:
1953 -- Society of Technical Writers (STW) founded.
1953 -- Association of Technical Writers and Editors (ATWE) founded.
1954 -- Technical Publishing Society (TPS) founded.
1954 -- Gordon Mill’s Technical Writing is published.
1957 -- STW and ATWE merge to form the Society of Technical Writers and Editors (STWE).
1960 -- STWE and TPS merge to form the Society of Technical Writers and Publishers (STWP).
1968 -- Houp and Pearsall’s Reporting Technical Information is published.

I’ve read histories of technical writing which argue that the proliferation of commercial and non-military computing products during the 1950s is a critical event in the history of technical writing. The claim is that these products (and the consumer-oriented products they spawned) required user documentation. This requirement led to opportunities writing user manuals, hardware installation manuals, quick sheets, etc. In turn, the commercialization of computing (information?) technology required technical writers to have different knowledge and capabilities as new job categories were created. The economic conditions, coupled with increased access to computing technology, placed increased demands on the skill levels of technical writers, in turn affecting the types and forms of writing taught in technical and professional writing programs.

It all sounds reasonable – more so after reading Ceruzzi’s chapter. An interesting snapshot of an interesting time.

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