History of Computing


Ed Lazowska, UW Computer Science & Engineering
Steve Maurer, UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy
Geoff Voelker, UCSD Computer Science & Engineering


Final Project

Version of 10/25


For your final project, we would like you to form teams of between 2 and 5 students, explore in depth a topic of your choice related to the History of Computing, and submit a report of between 15 and 25 pages.  In keeping with the spirit of the course, your report should explore the “why” as well as the “what,” and should attempt to distill lessons of broad applicability.  Attempt to consider factors such as markets, consumer preferences, government policies, and other dynamics that aren’t solely technological.


An ideal project would be sufficiently original that you would produce a Wikipedia entry on your topic (or significantly augment an existing Wikipedia entry) which you would turn in along with your report.


It would be great to do some “oral history” – interview a participant, and provide detailed notes along with your writeup.


The choice of topic is entirely up to you and your team members.  (Some ideas are listed below.)  It is entirely legit to build upon your “You Be The Expert” topic.  The choice of team members is entirely up to you, although we would like to encourage multi-campus collaborations.


Important dates


By Monday November 6 at midnight:  submit (to the three instructors and the TA) a list of team members (with their institutional affiliations), your topic title, and a one-paragraph description of the topic.  (5% of project grade)


By Monday November 20 at midnight:  submit (to the three instructors and the TA) a 5-page detailed outline of your report, and clearly describe the division of responsibilities among the team members.  (10% of project grade)


By Wednesday December 6 at midnight:  submit (to the three instructors and the TA) your final report.  (85% of project grade)


Some possible topics


1.      Study the history of the use of computing in a particular application domain – banking, Wall Street, aircraft design, etc.


2.      Study the impact of computing on a particular aspect of society (e.g., entertainment, medicine, trade and commerce, politics, etc.).


3.      Study a specific system or technology or event and its impact/legacy:  ENIAC, System/360, the commercialization of the Internet, the x86 instruction set, the mouse, Xerox PARC, etc.


4.      Study the impact on computing of some major event (WW II, terrorism, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, etc.).


5.      Study a failed product, service, or prediction in computing.  For example, what caused the “Internet bubble” and what were its short-term and long-term implications?


6.      Describe a potential alternate history if some event had not influenced computing (e.g., WW II), if some company had behaved differently (if IBM had closed the PC platform or purchased MS/DOS; if Microsoft had not attempted to integrate the browser with the operating system), if competition had turned out differently (e.g., if the Mac had dominated the IBM PC), or if some device/algorithm/application/discovery had not occurred (e.g., the spreadsheet, the Web browser (ftp remains dominant)).


7.      Write a simulator for an early computer or computing device.


8.      Study the use of abaci for computation.  Consider:  Why didn't mechanical computation emerge in China, which had a massive central bureaucracy and hence very strong (v-c) reasons to invent it; conversely, why did abaci persist in Asian cultures long after cheap mechanical adding machines were available?  See discussion, Lecture 1 Wiki for a starting point.


9.      Study the history of word lengths and byte lengths; the relationship to binary/decimal; the relationship to business/scientific.  (For this and all subsequent topics, be sure not to be 100% “techhy.”  Seek a “puzzle” – something that could equally have well gone the other way.)


10.  Study the history of display technologies.  Vector vs. bitmap.  Portrait vs. landscape.  Color vs. grayscale.


11.  Study the history of digital typography.