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Explore Pioneering Software at the Computer History Museum

Its director of curation on preserving Smalltalk and other source codes

4 min read
A photo of a man in a blue shirt holding folder and papers.
Chattman Photography

The Computer History Museum is one of the most well-known institutions of its kind. Located in Mountain View, Calif., the museum chronicles the impact of computing and technological innovation through artifacts and through archived films, photographs, and documents. The staff conducts oral histories, hosts live events, and curates exhibits.

All its work wouldn’t be possible without the museum’s experienced historians of technology. One is David C. Brock, director of curatorial affairs, who also heads the museum’s Software History Center. His research focuses on histories of computing, electronics, semiconductors, and software. He has conducted more than 200 oral histories of pioneers in the fields.

Computer History Museum Stats

Membership 12,000 supporting members and 55,000 e-mail subscribers

Website traffic Visitors from more than 200 countries and territories worldwide, with approximately 7 million views annually

Social media 167,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Medium, and Twitter

YouTube 3.4 million annual views of its 1,656 videos, 125,000 subscribers, and 18 million views since launch


The IEEE associate member has been with the museum since 2016 and has curated exhibits and events while regularly publishing historical essays.

One recent project he’s excited to be working on is the “Art of Code” exhibition, which is scheduled to run through next year. Exploring how software is developed, the exhibit also considers its impacts.

“The ‘Art of Code’ is an opportunity for us to hold events around releases of some important historical source code for the first time,” Brock says. Visitors will be able to look behind the scenes of creating computer code, see how the software works, and realize how the code was organized.

Brock says he believes it’s important to make the source code available for historically important programs as “an object for study, just like other objects in a museum.”

“These historical source code releases are something that’s unique to the Computer History Museum,” he says.

Smalltalk, PostScript, and the Apple Lisa

The “Art of Code” kicked off with the September celebration of the 50th anniversary of Smalltalk. The programming language and environment was developed at Xerox Parc, in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The Smalltalk approach to computer programming and computer languages is called object-oriented programming, and it has been highly influential,” Brock says. “Many of the most commonly used programming languages today embody this object-oriented programming approach.”

The pioneers who developed Smalltalk discussed its impact during a museum event. (You also can read IEEE Spectrum’s Q&A with Adele Goldberg, one of the developers, about the influence the language has had on programming.)

This month the museum plans to release the source code for Adobe’s PostScript, which played a key role in the digital revolution in printing and publishing, Brock says.

The source code for Apple’s Lisa, the predecessor to the Macintosh, is set to be exhibited next month. Brock says that although Lisa wasn’t a commercial success, it was important in establishing the graphical user interface as we know it today.

“The Lisa computer introduced the whole idiom of the desktop, folders, and the ‘What you see is what you get’ type of word processors,” he says. WYSIWYG shows users how content will appear on a printed page, without the need for additional coding.

Understanding how a technology develops

Brock grew up during the rise of personal computers and computer networking. He says he used to have a simplistic view of science and technology, assuming there was “a straightforward scientific method—that science just gets transferred over into new technologies.”

It wasn’t until he studied logic and the philosophy of science at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., that he “became fascinated by how important technology is for society and culture but how little we understand how it develops and evolves,” he says. “That’s what got me interested in looking to the past to understand how science and technology work.”

He went on to earn a master’s degree in the sociology of scientific knowledge from the University of Edinburgh and another master’s in the history of science from Princeton.

“At first, I looked at technology from a philosophy of science point of view,” he says. “In subsequent studies, I looked at it from a sociological point of view.” What he learned, he says, is that the history of technology is fundamentally about people.

Documenting the life and times of Gordon Moore

Before joining the Computer History Museum, Brock worked for 17 years at the Science History Institute, in Philadelphia. One thing he noticed there was that the contributions of those working on the chemistry, chemical engineering, and material sciences of integrated circuits and semiconductors were underappreciated.

He decided to conduct oral histories with the pioneers of semiconductor electronics, including Intel cofounder Gordon Moore.

That led Brock to coauthor several books including Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary andMakers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor. He also wrote and helped produce several documentaries, including Moore’s Law at 50 and Scientists You Must Know: Gordon Moore.

Collaborations on IEEE Milestones

Brock has collaborated with the IEEE History Center and the IEEE Santa Clara Valley (Calif.) Section on the IEEE Milestones program, which recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world. On 11 September 2021, IEEE and the Computer History Museum held an event to commemorate 11 milestones in Silicon Valley. They included Shakey the robot, the RISC and SPARC chips, and the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. The museum has a dedicated wall where many IEEE Milestone plaques are displayed.

Brock is an active IEEE volunteer. He has served on IEEE Spectrum’s editorial advisory board and the IEEE Computer Society’s history committee. His articles for Spectrum include a profile of superconducting pioneer Dudley Buck and a look at the origins of PowerPoint. He is on the editorial board of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.

“My role in IEEE is interesting: a historian contributing to this community without a formal background—or employment—in electrical engineering,” Brock says. “What I’ve continually enjoyed is how much interest there is in history among IEEE members, and how history can connect and instruct these communities.”

The Conversation (1)
Bigit Goswami05 Jan, 2023
StM

Great article. Really informative.

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This playful illustration shows Duolingo’s owl mascot, cut away down the midline, showing hidden inside a high-tech skeleton suggestive of some sort of AI robot.
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