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Exploring The Early Digital

Thomas Haigh
Published 2019 ·
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This introductory chapter outlines the objectives of the book, explaining how adopting “early digital” as a frame can encourage new perspectives on established topics within the history of computing and productively integrate concerns from related fields such as media theory and communications history. Haigh encourages historians to take digitality seriously as an analytical category, probes the differences between analog and digital computing, and argues that the ability of a machine to follow a program is fundamentally digital. He also introduces the contributions of the individual chapters in the book, situating each within this broader analysis of digitality and its historical materiality. At the workshop held to prepare this book, Paul Ceruzzi noted that the digital computer was a “universal solvent.” This idea comes from alchemy, referring to an imaginary fluid able to dissolve any solid material. In the 1940s the first digital computers were huge, unreliable, enormously expensive, and very specialized. They carried out engineering calculations and scientific simulations with what was, for the time, impressive speed. With each passing year, digital computers have become smaller, more reliable, cheaper, faster, and more versatile. One by one they have dissolved other kinds of machine. Some have largely vanished: fax machines, cassette players, telegraph networks, and encyclopedias. In other cases the digital computer has eaten familiar devices such as televisions from the inside, leaving a recognizable exterior but replacing everything inside. For those of us who have situated ourselves with the “history of computing,” this provides both a challenge and an opportunity: an opportunity because when the computer is everywhere, the history of computing is a part of the history of everything; a challenge because the computer, like any good universal solvent, has dissolved its own container and vanished from sight. Nobody ever sat down in front of T. Haigh (*) Department of History, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI, USA Comenius Visiting Professor, Siegen University, Siegen, Germany
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