Part 4
Claim: An Adventure Begins

Copyright ©2006 by Paul Niquette, all rights reserved.

orty years later, in 1999, I was sipping cocktails at an Equinox party in the hillside home of my best friend, the late Tom Sullivan.  A software enthusiast and computer historian, Tom curated a magnificent livingroom display of venerable computer technologies -- cores and disks, printed circuit boards and chips.

Tom introduced me to his guests.  "Paul here is the guy who invented the word 'software'."

Nothing but shrugs from around the room.  I felt my face fluoresce.  Fully conflicted, with a familiar battle raging inside my cranium between modesty and pride, I studied the tops of my shoes.  Not that I am shy -- on the contrary, I enjoy giving speeches.

The typical program chairman will read his prepared introduction to the audience, stumbling over the words that describe "the inventions of this evening's speaker."  A university audience will good-naturedly groan about "the radar speed meter"; an aviation audience will nod approvingly when hearing about "the altitude reporting transponder"; computer science audiences exchange glances when they are told that they will be addressed by the inventor of "the cache memory"; a school assembly will be awestruck by the presence at the podium of the owner and rider of "the largest bicycle in the world."
At a cocktail party, however, each person seems intent upon his or her own relevancies, indifferent to those of others, resisting the impulse to admire, taking refuge in a private rampart of doubt.  Such occasions do not constitute the best venue for advertising achievements, whether bygone or recent.  People are too polite, though, to put their skepticism into words ("Oh really?  I suppose you have plenty of documentary evidence for that allegation.").

On this occasion, I sensed dismissiveness in the air.  I gestured toward a huge dictionary that Tom keeps open on a pedestal across the room and shrugged.  "You can look it up," I said, secure in the knowledge that nobody would bother to do so.  Despite its thin Bible-paper pages, the volume stands fully eight inches tall and contains an entry which reads...

soft wares = Dry goods.  Dry goods Commercial -- Chiefly U.S. Textile fabrics, cottons, woolens, linens, silks, laces, etc. -- in distinction from hardware, jewelry, groceries, etc.
-- Websters New International Dictionary, Second Edition, Unabridged 1954
Now, there are plenty of media references on the first radar speed meter and published papers about the altitude reporting transponder.  Patent 3,938,097 for the cache memory hangs on my office.  Hey, I even have my picture in the Guinness Book of World Records astride The 64-inch Columbia Expert Ordinary.  Nevertheless, in 1999 there existed not one dictionary that associated my name with the word 'software'.

As the Centennial -- yea Millennium -- rang in, I became absorbed in the thought that the time had arrived for me to deal with certain matters of life-relevance. Top of my list was the authentication of my claim for the word 'software'.  It should be easy, I thought.

It was not.

Then and there began a private effort that spans six years of evenings and weekends.  What I like to call the "softword project" has been an adventure full of suspense and with a surprising outcome -- outcomes, plural.

tarting out, of course, I consulted dictionaries and other references to ascertain what is known about the origin of the word 'software'.  Dictionaries cite an earliest date of 1960.  The one that really counts most is the Oxford English Dictionary, so I took out a second mortgage on my house and bought the 1999 edition. Appendix A provides the complete OED entry for 'software' along with its historical citations.  Here are salients...

Sense a. The programs and procedures required to enable a computer to perform a specific task, as opposed to the physical components of the system. 

Sense b. The body of system programs, including compilers and library routines, required for the operation of a particular computer and often provided by the manufacturer, as opposed to program material provided by a user for a specific task. 

Given the scholarship that characterizes every entry in OED, and given the significance of the word 'software' -- indeed 'software' is a word offering itself for the naming of the present age! -- perhaps a little parsing will be tolerated here.

Of crucial significance is the fact that Sense a empowers software "to perform a specific task," while drawing the distinction enjoyed by software with respect to "physical components" -- hardware -- the latter commonly regarded as "general purpose."  Sense b rightly depicts "system programs" as implements of the computer art, wherein machines have increasingly participated in their own programming.  By the way, non-computer senses for the word 'software' -- books and films and videos -- are addressed elsewhere.

The OED entry expands on the definition as follows: "In early use, the word was interpreted widely to include program material written by a user, as well as systems programs...." Quite so -- but only for tardy values of "early."  In its earliest uses, the word 'software' referred almost exclusively to "material written by a user."  My claim not withstanding, the term would almost never have been interpreted to include "systems programs," since there were few of the latter prior to 1960 and they would have been primitive indeed.  For every application of a given computer in those early days, the user necessarily created the whole program -- and in machine language, at that.  The first such was binary.  Still is.  Lurking deep inside today's most advanced computer chips are still those primordial binary bits of old, the intrinsic machine language.  In the late fifties, various "utility packages" were being developed comprising globally accessible subroutines for interfacing to the hardware for read/write functions, for sensing, bootstrapping, loading.  These support services were of lesser importance than "applications" programs and in the early sixties would be absorbed inside the earliest "monitors" and "operating systems."

n the fifties, software was not in the modern sense "written."  Software needed to be punched into paper tape or cards.  For fixing "bugs," a programmer might even be required to operate rows of toggle switches and push-buttons on a panel to input "instructions." Each instruction comprised an "operation code" (load, add, subtract, alongside an "operand address" -- all in binary.   Early progress was marked by allowing clusters of binary bits to be encoded as octal digits -- a forlorn convenience.  Thus the earliest software was necessarily expressed in what became pejorated as a "computer oriented language" (COL), wherein the properties of the hardware were always starkly in evidence -- registers, operations, memory addresses.

Any COL is the most unnatural form of expression if you happen to be a human being.  The earliest "assemblers" came along to make COLs more readable and mnemonic, but the programmer was still required to translate the requirements of each mission, whether a scientific calculation or a business accounting, into the machine's unforgiving COL.  Along came "compilers," each of which accepted a "problem oriented language" (POL) as "source code" and automatically translated POL strings into the requisite COL, known as "object code."  POLs and many other kinds of software belong in the realm of tools.  Tools are not jobs, and the ultimate work of the hardware must be controlled by software -- programs and procedures -- that enable a computer to perform specific jobs.

The Cobol compiler, which is mentioned in the OED 1961 citation, got its name from an acronym for COmmon Business Oriented Language.  In the sixties, COBOL was a boon for coercing computers to do general ledger, receivables, payables, payroll, labor distribution, labor performance, inventory control -- the real jobs we needed machines for.  Before Cobol there was a POL named Fortran (FORmula TRANslator) and before that, in 1959, there was SOAP (Symbolic Optimizing Assembly Program), for its time the most advanced form of a COL.

Despite the perceptions in many references, the use of the term did not wait until assemblers and compilers came into existence.  Software created directly in machine language was there from the git-go mandating each job's specificity and putting the usefulness into the general-purpose hardware.

he earliest quotation cited in OED is from the June 1960 issue of Communications, Assocation of Computing Machinery, "Nearly every manufacturer is claiming compatibility with all other equipment via such software as Cobol."

Nota bene, the off-hand expression "...such software as..." discloses evidence (a) that in 1960, the word applied to other classes of software (non-Cobol-like, let's say), which would surely include application-specific, do-the-job programs and (b) that the word 'software' was in use before June 1960.
The second citation is a June 1961 Computer Bull article, "The programming expertise, or ‘software’, that is at the disposal of the computer user comprises expert advice on all matters of machine code programming, comprehensive libraries of subroutines for all purposes, and the pegasus/sirius scientific autocode."
Here is evidence that in the 1960s, authors in the computer field were already becoming preoccupied by the magic of "systems programs," which, however attractive as programing tools, merely support the preparation of software and must eventually be trumped by the execution of software -- the ultimate purpose for software -- to do jobs.
There being no documented usages in OED of the word 'software' earlier than 1960, I wrote to the Chief Editor...
Subject: The Word 'Software'
    Date:  Thu, 06 Jul 2000 13:18:40 -0700
   From:  Paul Niquette <>
       To:  John Simpson <>

Dear John Simpson,

In October of 1953, I coined the word 'software.'  No kidding.

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 all week.

You people at OED will demand proof, of course, and I am pulling together some documentation.  I have identified 28 likely witnesses in the 1953 time frame, but I have not yet contacted them on this subject, with the intention of not inflencing their respective memories.  I have prepared a chronology, and I have drafted a memoir entitled, "Softword," which I will publish on my website.

In briefest summary, I was writing programs on the SWAC in 1953 at UCLA.  At the time, the SWAC was one of about a dozen computers in the whole U.S.  When I first hoked up the word -- to distinguish programs from hardware, of course -- people said, "Huh?"  I explained that 'soft' meant changeable.   People then and for years later kind of sneered "Software...[pause]...I see."

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") was unable to do anything until a 'programmer' came along to 'program' it, and the consequent 'routines' and 'subroutines' resided in the computer thereafter.  One did not, in the beginning, think of taking a program written for one computer and put it into another computer.  Remember IBM after the consent decree?  "Unbundling" was the result, and software became a commercially distinct product line.  But that was not until the sixties.

From the very beginning I did not find the word 'software' to be
useful.  It was embarrassing to say and too informal to write.  I
stopped liking the word.  I saw -- excuse the immodesty -- I foresaw the incomparable hardness of software, as celebrated in my rather influential screed at...

...but with smirking trepidation I did go ahead and use the term from time to time in speeches and classes and media interviews throughout the fifties, before I got bored with it.  I never expected the silly word to catch on.  Later on, I started hearing and reading the word, generally accompanied by blushing explanations.

One can get a patent on an invention (I have 38), a copyright on a book (I have five), a trademark on a name, (I have several), but what does one do to assert primacy as the originator of a word.  The idea is to put it into currency, of course, not horde it in some way.  And then grandkids come along and there comes a time to write one's memoirs...

That was supposed to be a brief summary, Dr. Simpson.  What do I do now?

Best regards,

    From:   John Simpson <>
      Sent:   06 July 2000 23:33
        To:    Paul Niquette <>
 Subject:    Re: The Word 'Software'

Dear Paul,

Thanks for your note about "software". 

You're right that we'd be very interested in (preferably published) documentation from the fifties in which you use the word. It's a long shot that you'll have any unpublished documentation from that time, but maybe you do! 

Sometimes there are established "stories" about the invention of a word which we might refer to (again preferably in published sources) if actual documentation is missing. 

You'll understand the problem.  We may have a number of people all claiming to be the inventor, and without any evidence it's not possible to decide between competing claims.

But please do let us know what you can dig up.

John Simpson
Chief Editor, OED

Thus advised, in the summer of 2000, I took up an action plan, focusing on three searches, for...

  1. Published Documentation from the fifties in which I used the word 'software'.
  2. Unpublished Documentation from that time in which I used the word 'software'.
  3. Established Stories about the invention of the word 'software' in published sources.

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