Part 0
Introduction: The Software Age

Adapted from an article first published in
Sophisticated:The Magazine
Copyright ©1995 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.


n October, 1953, I coined the word 'software.'

The notion of software as a separate thing from hardware took years to assert itself. Sure, the computer (popularly referred to as a "giant brain" in the early fifties) was unable to do anything but consume electrical power until a "programmer" came along to "program" it, and the consequent "routines" resided in the computer's "memory" thereafter. One did not, in the beginning, take a program written for one computer and put it into another.  A half-century later, most people will find that hard to imagine.

As originally conceived, the word 'software' was merely an obvious way to distinguish a program from the computer itself. A program comprised sequences of written -- changeable -- instructions each endowed with the power to command the behavior of the permanently crafted machinery -- the "hardware."

For the origin of the word 'software,' most dictionaries give an unknown source and 1960 as the date, but [expletive deleted] I was there! That's the only exclamation point I intend to use in this introduction.

Fifty years ago, I was writing programs for the SWAC at UCLA, one of only 16 digital computers in the whole U.S. When I was first struck by the word 'software' (it was an epiphany), I shook my head and chuckled.

When I first said 'software' out loud, people around me said, "Huh?" From the very beginning I found the word too informal to write and often embarrassing to say. Nevertheless, with smirking trepidation I did occasionally feature the word 'software' in speeches and lectures and media interviews throughout the fifties.

It was just a throw-away thing. The word 'software' was hardly my most notable invention, even back then. Nothing to write home about (I was only 19 years old and still living at home).  The word 'software' did not belong in a technical paper (besides, an undergraduate is but a ghostwriter for principal researchers).  Then too, I had a reputation at UCLA as a practical joker. Colleagues and friends simply shrugged, no doubt regarding each utterance as a tiresome prank or worse, another offbeat neologism, for which I was also becoming noted.

Nobody in 1953 would have guessed that the silly word would take hold, that within a few decades 'software' would enter the general vocabulary for products and for professions -- that a worldwide industry would wear it as a solemn name. You can be sure that if my ego and I had harbored any such glorious visions, then... then, what?

t the time of this writing, there are about 4.2 million issued patents (I once met Bob Hudson, inventor of an asphalt recycling machine for which he was awarded U.S. Patent No. 4,000,000 -- but I digress). There must be at least that many more worldwide -- a total, say, of 10 million. Every patent has some number of "claims" (my largest -- ahem -- for the first digital cassette recorder has 106 claims). Each patent-claim is, in effect, a separate invention, an average of perhaps ten per patent. So there must be at least a hundred million officially recognized inventions in the world. Punch Line: There are only 38,000 words in the English Language.

Nota bene, the hundred million issued patent-claims officially recognize only a small fraction of the world's inventions, but the rest are inventions just the same. An inventor does not apply for patent protection for each and every idea before reducing it to practice.  Likewise, a person inventing a word does not submit it for publication in a dictionary before speaking it or writing it.

By comparison to other inventions, words are rare indeed. One reason is that there is no commercial value to them, which is why patents do not apply to words: You want to say "holomorph"? -- get out your checkbook. Copyrights don't make sense either, since a word uncopied has no linguistic value at all. Trademarks, truth be known, protect the interests of buyers not sellers; accordingly, a "wordmark" would benefit listeners and readers not speakers and writers. Words are coined and thus spent -- circulated, borrowed, defaced, worn out, and lost.

ictionaries are not gate keepers like the Patent Office but merely infrequent periodicals, passively reporting on linguistic usage, relying necessarily on snippets in published documents -- in non-dictionaries. Once usage for an invented word becomes established, however, the etymological trail gets cold quickly, and if the original utterance is undocumented, even a linguistic bloodhound may not pick up the scent of the true inventor. Pity the verbal coiner, unrewarded, unacclaimed, unattested.

Inventors themselves, it seems plain, do a whole lot better job of inventing things than inventing words to call things. The bicycle got its 'pedal' from the piano, the engine appropriated 'piston' from the trombone, the airplane named its 'fuselage' from the sewing spindle and its 'empennage' from the tail feathers of an arrow.  Millions of inventions apply to computers, both hardware and software. Readers are invited to check What's Not in a Name? and Mukashi for lamentations about the dearth of inventive language in 'The Software Age'.

'The Software Age' -- now, there's an ambitious coinage. The previous sentence deserves an exclamation point and so does the next one. Without software, there would be neither "The Computer Age" nor "The Information Age."  Same for "The Space Age."  Meanwhile, is "The Atomic Age" officially over? How much longer will "The Petroleum Age" last? Accordingly, does 'The Software Age' have any real competition?

All right, so one can get a patent on an invention, a copyright on a book, a trademark on a name, but what does one get to assert primacy as the originator of a word? As noted above, there is no proprietary instrument that protects a word. Nor, of course, would one want one ("I'll sue you if you use that term, I have the 'wordright' on it"). On the contrary, the idea is to put each coinage into currency, not horde it away.

And then the grandkids grow up and there comes a time to write one's memoirs.  This one is dedicated to my first great-grandchild, Charlotte.

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