The Software History Center collects and preserves historical software, archives, and oral histories. The center explores people-centered stories, documents software-in-action, and leverages the Museum’s rich collections to tell the story of software. The center seeks to put history to work today in gauging where we are, where we have been, and where we are heading.
Understanding human intelligence and how computers might act intelligently spans the entire history of computing. Machine learning now predominates artificial intelligence. Trained on large data sets, deep neural networks perform remarkable acts, from recognizing speech and faces to driving trucks and identifying tumors. Through oral history, collections, and conversation CHM is exploring valuable perspectives for today and tomorrow from the long history of artificial intelligence.
CHM is committed to building and preserving a broad collection of historical software. While this collection includes all forms, we especially emphasize source code—that is, software as it is written by people. Source code reveals how programmers solved problems and is a form of expression with its own idioms and styles. We collect and make public source code for historical software that has changed the world.
Software is made to run; it is what computers do. This makes computing a dynamic process. It happens when someone runs software on the right hardware. But what about computing of the past? At CHM we match experts with software and hardware to capture the dynamic process of historical computing. We create careful video documentation of key figures as they operate and discuss historical software on restored original hardware.
Make Software: Change the World! is CHM’s major software exhibition, which you can visit onsite or online. It explores the history, impact, and technology behind seven game-changing applications: Photoshop, MP3, MRI, Car Crash Simulation, Wikipedia, Texting, and World of Warcraft. The Stata Family Foundation Software Lab is at the center of the exhibition, where visitors are introduced to basic programming concepts and encouraged to try coding hands-on.
From 1972 to 1983, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) researchers developed novel hardware and software for the Xerox Alto, setting the model for personal computing for more than 40 years. Alto software developments in programming languages, user interfaces, printing, graphics, word processing, networking, email, and more profoundly influenced personal computing thereafter. In this event, key figures from the Alto story discussed and demonstrated it live!
Today, the computer is an indispensable tool in the creation of print—books, magazines, and printed materials of all sorts. While computers appeared in printing and publishing in the 1960s, it was the 1970s that set the stage for a remarkable transformation in the 1980s: the desktop publishing revolution. In this two-day meeting, pioneers of desktop publishing discussed the technological, economic, and social dimensions of this transformation.
For centuries, many have taken prowess at the game of chess to be a symbol of human intelligence, requiring cunning, strategy, memory, focus, and creativity. What would it mean if a computer could be made to play chess well? Would it possess an “artificial intelligence?” What would a successful chess-playing computer teach us about ourselves? This online exhibit explores the deep connections between chess, computing, and artificial intelligence.
How are historians and other researchers exploring the development and consequences of computing today? What new directions and insights are emerging? We helped organize and hosted a recent conference, Command Lines, of the Society for the History of Technology’s Special Interest Group in Computers, Information, and Society (SIGCIS)—the leading community of researchers exploring computing’s past.
The Museum preserves and makes accessible a large archival collection in its Shustek Research Archives. Recently, we were honored to be entrusted with the papers of Dennis M. Ritchie. Ritchie was the creator of the C programming language in the 1970s—still among the most widely used today—and an instrumental figure in the development of Unix, both at the Bell Telephone Laboratories where he spent his career.
We are submerged in interactive multimedia. The online world combines digital versions of traditional media (text, sound, image, video) navigated through hyperlinks. How did it evolve? How have computers become creative tools? What has been gained and what has been lost? We are actively collecting software, archives, and other materials on the history of interactive multimedia, and exploring it using video ethnography and events.
Software is more than obscure computer code. It’s an art form: a meticulously crafted literature that enables complex conversations between humans and machines. From Fortran to sophisticated programs in use today, discover the technology, creativity, hard work, and technique behind these elegant languages. Software pioneers share their stories in this 9-minute video production.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation