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Programming Code from Punch Cards to HTML

A History of Software

It is anyone’s guess how far computer technology will advance. And as software applications have become vital to virtually every aspect of modern life, it is anyone’s guess how fully integrated technology will become in modern living. Recent decades have rapidly evolved technologically, building upon innovations of previous decades with greater speed than at any other time in history. And speed is a primary reason for it. Since the Industrial Revolution, humankind has sought ways to become ever more efficient in all realms of life from production at the factory to cooking meals at home. Today the mediating force between technology and humans is software.

Through machine code instructions called programming languages, software allows individualized access to the complicated interaction of input and output technology, memory, and processing—that is, individualized control over the hardware components. Electronic data management proved useful in its earliest commercial applications such as employee payroll and airline reservations, but even the earliest pioneers in software development could never have predicted the personal computer and its full range of applications in the home. Software, though ubiquitous now, was only a gradual emergence in the computer industry, and it took individual contributions by a number of brilliant minds to evolve into the products and services we take for granted today.

Software Predecessors: Punch Cards and Manual Electrical Relays

Mechanical methods of computation were forever changed by the advent of electronics, and electronic computation was forever changed by the versatility that software provided. The early problem in electronic computation was in distinguishing among distinct numerical quantities. This problem led to the development of an electronic pulse technique, or the simple distinction between off and on, or 0 and 1: binary code (Glass 1998). Before programs began to be written to make the most of electronic computing power, the computer industry was dominated by engineers developing hardware. The history of the computer industry extends at least as far back as Edwin Howard Armstrong, who in the early twentieth century improved radio transmission with a receiver called the “three-electrode valve (or triode)…[that] was to be the seed of modern electronics, computers and the Internet” (Evans 2004).

In the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, three distinct entrepreneurial forces combined to form the behemoth electronics and computer company that has operated for nearly a century: International Business Machines or, simply, IBM. First, the critically important punch-card tabulating machine company of Herman Hollerith was absorbed by Charles Flint’s Computer-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR) in 1911. Second, Thomas Watson, the man who would eventually transform CTR into IBM, cut his teeth at John Patterson’s National Cash Register Company. Patterson was an intense and distinguished salesperson who used rallying slogans, an emphasis on sales and service, and technological innovation to create “America’s first national sales force” (Evans 2004). And third, Watson’s unique ability to unite the divided CTR combined with his sales and marketing experience helped him transform the company through a focus on engineering and technology, such that by the time of the New Deal, IBM was in the position to lead the nation in mechanical computation products.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, punch cards became the driving force of corporate America as they were used in virtually every office accounting machine. Software pioneer Raymond Houghton recalls the “punched little rectangular holes in [decks of] cards” that were read by computing machines without operating systems well into the 1960s (Glass 1998). Cards were notated with programming languages such as IBM’s FORTRAN (FORmula TRANslation) and the U.S. Department of Defense’s COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language) and they combined coded instruction sets such as compilers and assemblers to try to make computing more efficient. Compilers “automated the process of selecting and reusing code to create programs” while assemblers were “program[s] that translated between a more recognizable assembly notation and machine code” (Yost 2005). These slow, sometimes unreliable language-programming methods were basically analogue precursors to digital software programming techniques.

With pressure from emerging competitors in the field, Thomas Watson steered his company into electronics and hired new engineers en masse to develop IBM’s own mainframe calculating machines. The early massive mainframe computation machines were composed of tons of steel and glass, hundreds of thousands of parts, and thousands of vacuum tubes and clunky relays. Early electronic relays, such as those on the University of Pennsylvania’s Pentagon-sponsored Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), had to be manually plugged and unplugged individually according the specific computations being programmed. His son Thomas Watson, Jr. later observed ENIAC in action and was not convinced such immense, unreliable machines could ever be useful in business applications. Yet he would eventually lead IBM into a dominating position in the computer industry as mainframes evolved and software became a codependent but independent field.

At the time, however, ENIAC’s designers got the attention of Prudential Insurance (a major client of punch-card technology that was finding it increasingly difficult to store millions of programming and archived cards) and the U.S. Census Bureau when they proposed digital computation with magnetic tape technology for storage. According to Paul E. Ceruzzi of the Smithsonian, this step was the critical one leading to development of programming “as something both separate from and as important as hardware design” (Evans 2004). In the 1950s, computer hardware technology improved with the development of magnetic-core memory, transistorized circuits instead of vacuum tubes, and random-access storage. Software programs were needed to manage such complex needs like that of the growing airline industry, which handled the massive “flow of bookings, cancellations, seat assignments, availability of seats, [and] connecting flights” among other such “complications.” The need for computer software was becoming painfully evident (Evans 2004).

Birth of “Software” and the Interactive Minicomputer

According to Jeffery R. Yost, the term “software” was created in the late 1950s and was soon adopted throughout the industry (2005). Coined by statistician John Tukey, the term became a catchall, user-friendly term for the work of computer programmers who were using terminology ranging from “computer program” to “code.” The America Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy describes software as “[t]he programs and instructions that run a computer, as opposed to the actual physical machinery and devices that compose the hardware.” Meanwhile, The Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing adds that software is divided into two primary types: system software and program applications. System software includes general program execution processes such as compilers and, most recognizably, the disk operating system (DOS), which has evolved in form in IBM PC-style computers within the last two decades from the ubiquitous Microsoft DOS prompt (MS-DOS) to stylish Windows-based platforms from Microsoft 2000 to Windows Vista. Similarly, Apple has seen countless new releases from the Apple DOS 3.1 of 1977 to the OS X series of recent years. Program applications include everything else, from gaming to multimedia to scientific applications. Finally, software combines lines of source code written by humans with the work of compilers and assemblers in executing machine code (Dictionary.com).

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955, a project called TX-O was given to Ken Olsen. The project hoped to develop smaller research computers out of tiny, powerful transistor technology. MIT programmer Wesley Clark designed the TX-O and with Olsen’s methodical and persistent management helped develop the foundation of Olsen’s dream: “a reliable computer…accessible by one person, inexpensive and low powered, but…compact, fast, and exciting” (Evans 2004). After MIT, Olsen and his assistant Harlan Anderson obtained venture capital to found the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to develop interactive minicomputers to sell on the open market. Computer models such as DEC’s Programmed Data Processor series used a concept called “open architecture” to allow personalized software to run everything from submarines to refineries to neon displays at Times Square. DEC used the millions of dollars gained by going public in 1966 to enter into the field of networking by developing “standardized technologies and communication protocols.” IBM machines didn’t have the networking capacity other companies had begun to develop, resulting in the loss of  most of its market share. It re-entered the playing field in 1976 by developing minicomputers of its own, entering into a field that so many had not believed in: the personal computer (Evans 2004).

Advanced Hardware for Complex Applications

As early as 1939, scientists such as William Shockley theorized that diminutive semiconductors would replace vacuum tubes. Indeed, all of modern electronics is based on Shockley’s ideas. Semiconductors can handle electronic pulses at the rate of billions of times per second, instead of the 10,000-times-persecond speed of the clunky and precarious vacuum tubes. Fairchild Semiconductor entered the market to compete with Shockley Semiconductor, and soon Fairchild became known for an innovation in semiconductors that is now familiar around the world: the use of silicon.

Silicon, “a commonplace mineral that constitutes 90 percent of the earth’s surface” was first used by Fairchild for U.S. Air Force rockets in transistors that needed to withstand intense heat. Additional elements were combined with silicon on flattened transistors to create the first integrated circuits capable of handling multiple devices and increasingly complex software applications. “Silicon Valley” was born as innumerable high-tech companies emerged on the scene, congregating in at the southern end of California's San Francisco Bay area. Perhaps most notably, Integrated Electronics, or Intel, was founded and new advances in memory chips and microprocessors allowed computers to handle software light years more complex than the single mathematical computations of the original mainframes (Evans 2004).

The Innovators of the Digital Age

Microsoft's MS-DOS was directly modeled on a now lesser-known operating system called CP/M that was developed by University of Washington graduate Gary Kildall’s Digital Research (DRI). Kildall’s work was essential to Bill Gates and Microsoft (which was originally founded to sell the Beginners’ All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) programming language interpreter for hobbyists to write their own programs), but so were the early personal computer developments of Apple and its subsequent graphical user interface (GUI) that preceded Windows. It is Kildall’s work, nevertheless, that truly shaped Microsoft and much about modern computing. Evans theorizes that had Kildall had his way, the personal computer industry would have had access to multitasking windows-style platforms much sooner and the entire industry would be much more advanced today. Still, Kildall is attributed with the ideas that were “the genesis of the whole third-party software industry” (2004).

Gary Kildall’s style of programming helped drive the transition from mechanical computing into digital computing. Kildall developed open language programming years before IBM’s PC, and a number of months before Apple. In short, before microcomputers even existed, Kildall authored a programming language “for a microcomputer operating system and the first floppy disk operating system” (Evans 2004). Intel’s microprocessors were already running everything from microwaves to watches, but Kildall imagined them in home computers running software that would drive networks and wouldn’t be bogged down by hardware compatibility issues. His Programming Language for Microcomputers (PL/M) evolved into the Control Program for Microcomputers (CP/M), which contained the first PC prompt, wherein Kildall could open and store files in directories--work that is now down seemingly automatically as users click-and-drag files through virtual space on the computer desktop.

Next, Kildall’s basic input/output system (BIOS) could be easily changed by programmers to adapt to their specific hardware. Kildall’s software advancements were easily adapted into clone systems, though Kildall had largely retained licensing rights to his software through encoded copyright and encryption techniques. One operating system, however, Tim Patterson’s DOS, or the Quick ’n’ Dirty Operating System (QDOS), was developed for Rod Brock’s Seattle Computer Products. QDOS, according to Evans, “was yet another one of the rip-offs of the CP/M design” that would not have necessarily mattered had IBM’s business arrangements not aligned with those of Bill Gates. Spurred by the success of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s Apple products from the late 1970s and 1980s, IBM entered the field of microcomputers. Bill Gates seized the opportunity of Kildall’s delayed CP/M-86 (being designed for the faster Intel chip IBM had decided upon) and purchased Patterson’s operating system in order to strike a deal (2004).

The trouble was, Kildall had already made arrangements with IBM and he thought he had successfully negotiated CP/M a share of the market upon the release of IBM’s new personal computer in 1981. But the final price point of CP/M was six times that of Microsoft’s PC-DOS, effectively flushing CP/M out of the market. Kildall had been betrayed. Ironically, only Kildall knew the limitations of CP/M and PC-DOS. His intentions for multitasking operating software would have revolutionized the industry at that time, but the IBM-Microsoft partnership dominated the American market and they evolved at their own pace. Meanwhile, Kildall kept his operation afloat with his European offices, which embraced the multitasking capacities of his MP/M OS.

While Kildall went on to innovate in areas from CD-ROMs to computer networking, DRI combined the graphic display technology of Atari with the expertise of former Microsoft programmer Kay Nishi and cloned the single-tasking MS-DOS with their DR-DOS. Upon entering the market, DR-DOS not only drove down Microsoft’s price point, but also fixed a number of MS-DOS bugs. This move helped lead to Novell’s acquisition of DRI in 1991 for $120 million. Gates missed the opportunity to acquire DRI for $10 million a few years earlier but, oddly enough, his investment in the ideas of Steve Jobs in 1996 helped Apple enter successful new fields of digital innovation such as the iPod and music downloading software, a field that, of course, Microsoft soon entered. Perhaps most importantly, Microsoft proved the power of owning the operating system. After years of working with IBM as the provider of the software for their hardware, Microsoft surpassed IBM (Evans 2004).

From Personal to Global Network: the World Wide Web

Early computer networking technology was commercialized especially for use in corporations or other large organizations. Local area networks (LANs) allowed both the internal exchange of information and the sharing of peripheral devices such as expensive printers. Educational institutions were especially likely to take advantage of personal computing, but through the 1980s individuals were snapping up computers for home use at an ever-increasing rate. The early computer hobbyists who facilitated the expansion of the industry into one that made software applications both desirable and accessible to broader audiences now saw these standalone tools become centers for information and communication. Computer software has become integral in virtually every industry from drafting software for architects to editing software for filmmakers and everything in-between. Data and word processing aside, software has quickly evolved from videodiscs and CD-ROMs containing entire encyclopedias to Internet browsing software allowing access to entire networks of libraries.

LANs evolved into WANs (wide area networks) and as multiple-linked local area networks expanded, particular among universities, the seeds for the Internet sprouted (Yost 2005). With Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the computer became larger than the little box in which it was contained. Browsing software such as Netscape’s Navigator (written by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina in 1993, and now owned by AOL), Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and Mozilla’s Firefox became the means for connecting to a digitized multimedia world now largely powered by Google, which daily guides hundreds of millions of users through billions of pages on the World Wide Web.

The World Wide Web all began with Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s fusion of the U.S. Defense Department’s Internet, which linked research centers, and hypertext, which allows quick navigation among documents. The now ubiquitous tools of the Internet devised by Berners-Lee include HTML (HyperText Markup Language, the language of Internet formatting code), communication protocols (called HyperText Transfer protocols or HTTP), and individually accessible Web addresses (called Uniform Resource Locators or URLs). Most importantly, Berners-Lee made “the Web a decentralized network” that could be accessed and contributed to by anyone with a connection (Evans 2004). Software, once an esoteric sparkle in the hardware engineer’s eye, has been democratized, and its applications in the modern, digital world seem infinite.

-- Posted June 26, 2008


Evans, Harold. 2004. They Made America. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Glass, Robert L. 1998. In the Beginning: Recollections of Software Pioneers. Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society Press.

software. Dictionary.com. American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Accessed: May 20, 2008.

----. ----. Free On-line Dictionary of Computing. Denis Howe. Accessed: May 20, 2008.

Yost, Jeffrey R. 2005. The Computer Industry. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.