CS 185C-01: The History of Computing




Fall Semester 2011

Department of Computer Science
San José State University

Instructor: Prof. Ron Mak


Mondays and Wednesdays, 6:00 – 7:15 PM


MacQuarrie Hall, room MQH 225 for classroom work. Most guest lectures will take place in the Davidson Engineering Building auditorium, room ENG 189. See the History of Computing Speaker Series schedule at http://www.cs.sjsu.edu/~mak/SpeakerSeries for when the guest lectures will occur in the auditorium. Other guest lectures will take place in the classroom.


Office hours:

Mondays: 5:30 – 6:00 PM and 8:45 – 9:30 PM


Wednesdays: 8:45 – 10:00 PM


and by arrangement



Office location:

MacQuarrie Hall, room 413




Course catalog description

“Advanced Practical Computing Topics: Computing topics of current interest in industrial practice. Emphasis on effective use and integration of software/hardware. Different topics may be offered at different times in a short-course lecture/lab format and may be repeated for credit.” 3 units


In Section 01, The History of Computing, we will explore the historical context and antecedents of today’s computing technologies, including hardware, software, and business and social issues.

Student learning outcomes                                                 

  • Understand the history behind the computing technologies we use today and how they evolved to their present state.
  • Learn the hard lessons of how past computing architects and developers overcame the technological, economic, and societal constraints of their day, and how to apply these lessons to become better architects and developers in our present day.
  • Meet and work with computing pioneers, many of whom are famous industry luminaries, to gain from their valuable advice and guidance on your class projects. Their e-mail addresses will be provided in class. This is a rare and unique Silicon Valley opportunity.
  • Do research from primary (original) sources, whether from examining historic artifacts in the archives of the Computer History Museum or by interviewing the original designers and developers. You should use secondary sources only for guidance. Turning in book reports is not sufficient to pass this course!
  • Write about history and accept criticism and advice from experts worldwide. You will post your intermediate and final reports to the IEEE Global History Network website. At the end of the semester, you will be able to link to your IEEE project reports from your resumes. See http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Special:Home
  • Gain a much greater appreciation for the technical gadgets you use today and become a better gadget designer.


At least one of the following:


CS 46B

Introduction to Data Structures

grade C- or better, or equivalent knowledge of computer software

CS 47

Introduction to Computer Organization

grade C- or better, or equivalent knowledge of computer hardware

Instructor consent


A student not meeting any prerequisites must fill out an Add Form at the beginning of the semester to explain his or her justifications to take the course, and it will be the instructor’s and the department’s decision whether or not to allow the student to enroll.

Required texts


A History of Modern Computing, 2nd edition, 2003


Paul E. Ceruzzi


The MIT Press



Other required texts will be downloadable from the Internet.
URLs will be provided in class or on the class webpage:


Recommended texts

There are many books about the history of computing. But since you will be writing about history, the following book will be extremely useful.



Writing History: A Guide for Students, 3rd edition, 2008


William Kelleher Storey


Oxford University Press



San Jose State University Writing Center

Since you will be posting to a global website and your writing will become visible worldwide, you may want to take advantage of the SJSU Writing Center if you are unsure of the quality of your writing. It is highly recommended that you have the center review at least your initial drafts. See http://www.sjsu.edu/writingcenter/


This is course will have two simultaneous tracks. On one track, you will work on a project individually or as a member of a small team, depending on the project. On the other track, you will attend talks by computing pioneers and industry luminaries and turn in short essays about the talks.


What the projects are will depend on student interest, either that of the individual or the members of the small team, with instructor consent. One guide to project selection is the range of expertise of the computing pioneers who have offered to be project advisors.


Example projects include


  • Restore a historic hardware or software artifact.
  • Create a software simulation of a legendary computer architecture.
  • Study the evolution of a specific hardware or software technology, including key decision points, controversies, politics, etc.
  • Chronicle the early history and legacy of a pioneering computing company or organization such as Control Data Corporation, Burroughs Corporation, Wang Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, Zilog, Xerox PARC, and others.
  • Investigate past programming languages and demonstrate their influences on today's languages and programming paradigms.
  • Trace the advancement of business or scientific data processing applications over the decades as application requirements and computing technologies evolved.
  • Study the impact of computing on society from the punched-card culture to the Web and social networking.
  • Collect, analyze, categorize, and index original software, documentation, and other artifacts related to a particular technology.
  • Interview industry pioneers and videotape and record their oral histories.


Each project team will present occasional oral progress reports of its activities during the semester to the rest of the class. You will post intermediate drafts of your project reports (or blogs describing the progress of your research) to the IEEE Global History Network website to expose your work to experts worldwide and to solicit their help and guidance. Final deliverables will be research results that can be submitted to the Computer History Museum or posted to websites devoted to computing history (including the IEEE Global History Network).


Most of the guest lectures will occur on Wednesday in the ENG 189 auditorium. We will use the preceding Monday in the MQH 225 classroom to become familiar with the speaker and his topic. After attending each guest lecture, you will e-mail the instructor a short essay (at most one page) describing your impressions of the guest lecture, such as what you thought of the speaker, what insights did you gain from the talk, how you can use what you learned, etc. This essay will be due at end of the day each Friday after the lecture.


Class attendance and participation is critical for this course, both Mondays and Wednesdays, to attend the guest lectures and to discuss the projects and the lectures.


See http://www.cs.sjsu.edu/~mak/SpeakerSeries for the schedule of guest lecturers associated with this course. Unfortunately, it is impossible to schedule the speakers in any semblance of chronological order, so we will jump around in the history of modern computing, mostly the 1960s through the 1990s, based on the backgrounds of the guest lecturers.

Class grade

Your individual class grade will be weighted as follows:



Attendance of the guest lectures and weekly essays*


Quality of the project research**


Quality of the final deliverable**




 * individual scores
** team scores


If a project team consists of more than one student, then each student on the team gets the same team score. Quality of the research includes such factors as what sources did you investigate, whom did you interview, how well did you solicit and respond to criticism and advice, etc. Final individual letter grades for the class will be assigned based on the class curve.

Classroom protocol

As mentioned above, it is very important for each student to attend classes and to participate. Cell phones in silent mode, please.

Academic Integrity

Your own commitment to learning, as evidenced by your enrollment at SJSU, and the University's Academic Integrity Policy requires you to be honest in all your academic course work. Faculty members are required to report all infractions to the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development. The policy on academic integrity can be found at http://www.sjsu.edu/studentaffairs/.

Further Information

If you need course adaptations or accommodations because of a disability, or if you need special arrangements in case the building must be evacuated, please make an appointment with me as soon as possible, or see me during office hours. Presidential Directive 97-03 requires that students with disabilities requesting accommodations register with the SJSU Disability Resource Center to establish a record of their disability.


Please familiarize yourself with SJSU policies and procedures:



particularly the add/drop policy. It is your responsibility to know and observe these policies. However, if there is something about a policy that you don't understand, please feel free to ask! You can also find answers to many questions at the Academic Advising and Retention Services web site. Note that for the Fall 2011 semester, the last day to drop a course without an entry in your permanent record is Tuesday, September 6, and the last day to add a course and register late is Tuesday, September 13. After these dates it becomes very difficult to drop or add a class, so be sure you are in good shape before these dates arrive! See http://www.sjsu.edu/includes/calendars/academic/1112aycalendar.pdf