uidelines for authenticating my claim were given to me by the Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary on July 6, 2000, calling for three searches: Published Documentation, Unpublished Documentation, and Established Stories. As indicated in the diagram, to authenticate my claim, all three searches would be confined to the Search Interval, between October, 1953 and June, 1960.
The most likely confirmations would be derived from my work at UCLA's Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering and from technical projects at Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge Products (later TRW, Inc.). Then too, prospective sources included my students in analog and digital computers at Los Angeles Technical College.
1. Published Documentation
With limited time to devote to the softword project, I drew extensively upon the resources of the Internet. On-line historical databases, of course, favor events that occurred long after the 1950s. I contacted likely sources, including the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and The Software History Center, with disappointing results.
"Three moves is the same as a fire," the saying goes. My personal archives have been eroded by seventeen residence relocations plus as many career changes. A mere fifteen book-boxes remain. I arranged to have them shipped from storage in Macomb, Illinois to my home in Concord, California. I spread out their contents on my work-bench. One item, the draft of a long-forgotten paper that I submitted to the ACM caught my attention. I dashed into the house and gazed at my computer screen...
Sure enough, OED's earliest citation was a quote taken from Communications, Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). I took that as an omen. In about 1959, I had submitted a "transaction" for one of ACM's journals. My short paper described an elegant random number generator for use by a feature-challenged computer with a drum memory (that's right, a drum -- please do not laugh). In particular, it was the RW-300, and I was using that meager machine to perform a Monte Carlo analysis of a proposed landing system for Chicago's Midway (not O'Hare -- see "Lottery Aloft"). I clicked up the ACM website, where I read...
Founded in 1947, ACM is a major force in advancing the skills of information technology professionals and students worldwide. Today, our 75,000 members and the public turn to ACM for the industry's leading Portal to Computing Literature, authoritative publications and pioneering conferences, providing leadership for the 21st century....and requested a search of their archives for 1959. Bernard Rous, Deputy Director of Publications ransacked the records but was unable to find my paper. I got to thinking: Whereas the research work was completed in mid-1959, the paper would have been submitted no earlier than 1960, thereby coinciding with the citation already published in OED. I do remember being a mighty proud 26-year-old upon seeing my name in print alongside an algorithm for a computer model that profoundly influenced a safety-critical decision in aviation history; however, it is doubtful indeed that I actually used the word 'software' in that paper. Instead, I would have referred to it by the formal and most common terminology, "subroutine."
Among various newspaper clippings in my files dating back to the early fifties were reports of local service-club speeches, an article I wrote about UCLA's pioneering automobile crash-injury research published in California Engineer, a piece in Westways magazine reporting on the first radar speed-meter, and several formal papers. The papers were all related to traffic engineering and explicitly authored by the principal researchers for whom I worked. None mentioned computers, let alone 'software'.
The two most relevant papers among my keepsakes were published long after 1953. My heart skipped a beat when I found them. The years coincided with those in the OED entry for the word 'software'. A coincidence -- or another omen?
Worth mentioning, I think, is the fact that I did deliver earlier versions of both papers at various conferences, including one at University of Pennsylvania and another at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from within the Search Interval. From the podium and on technical panels, I distinctly remember how I allowed myself to be less formal, even jocular, yet printed in a formal paper 'software' would have looked -- well, too unserious.
So much for authenticating my claim by Published Documentation. Just the same, any surviving attendees who recall those sessions during which they might have heard the word 'software' for the first time have been invited to comment here. After six years, none have done so.
2. Unpublished Documentation
Back to my workbench and those fifteen boxes.
In 1953, I was a junior at UCLA. Accordingly, the Unpublished Documentation in my archives from that period are nothing but notes and term papers on engineering subjects. There were no courses in computers at UCLA until after I graduated in 1955.
My first necktie job put me on secret projects for Hughes Aircraft, and, apart from private maunderings and satirical cartoons, there are few unpublished documents in my unshredded personal files. One cartoon I was hoping in vain to find would have characterized the time for readers of today.
As for lecture notes for my computer class at Los Angeles Tech -- well, there never were any. That's right, to this day, I have always taken pride in speaking from memory, extemporizing problems, stimulating discovery.
Now, it has been a lifelong habit to mark ideas as they occur to me with a stylized lightbulb in the margin of my notebooks. A few loose-leaf entries from the fifties include sketches so marked, which in their time were doubtless viewed as brilliant. Over the years and in the face of technological advances, however, the embarrassing obsolescence of those early efforts all but assured that they would be discarded on residential moving days.
A few escaped, and naturally, I was hoping to find among the surviving pages a lightbulb alongside the word 'software'. That would do it for OED, I told myself -- Unpublished Documentation from the fifties. But no. Whereas in my undiscarded papers, the word 'software' appears routinely in many places, usually abreviated 'S/W', the earliest occupies a line on a page dated 11/17/63 when I was at Scientific Data Systems -- beyond the Search Interval. No lightbulb for that one.
The third and last search was about to commence...
3. Established Stories
There ought to be many of these. All I need to do is find a few of the story tellers. That's what I thought, anyway. Three groups of prospective narrators are most appropriate for this last search.
3a. Family Members 1953 onwards3a. Family Members...
...may be the least credible informants under the harsh scrutiny of OED's editorial staff; however, the omission of their retrospective comments might be suspicious, too.
As a working full-time student with a long commute to the UCLA campus, I devoted precious few waking hours to my family. A half-century later, there are no letters-in-the-attic to discover, either -- only a handful of greeting cards among my keepsakes, hardly the place to find Established Stories about the word 'software'.
My mother died in 1975. In 1953, she was a single mother of three juveniles with little time to be curious about her eldest son's academic exploits. My father died in 2002 and would have been a likely source for Established Stories about me and the word 'software'; however, he was estranged from the family for ten years beginning in 1953.
During a telephone conversation in 2001, my dad allowed that the word 'software' probably did first reach his ears from me during a television interview I gave in New York (in 1958). He offered to sign an affidavit to that effect. I procrastinated, thinking -- wrongly -- that there would be plenty of time for that if the need arose.In an effort to reprise Established Stories about the word 'software', I wrote a delicately worded e-mail message to my sister and two brothers:
My two brothers, David and Alan, were
respectively 9 and
10 years old in 1953. Today, both are
distinguished members of the
clergy, David in Colorado and Alan in Oregon. I
was eager to have
their replies, hoping they would include helpful
The closest to Established
albeit from members of my family, may well be
inferred from the following
letters from my brothers:
The phrase "summer of 1957" above is
for the editors of OED to establish my claim
at least for usage
prior to 1958 -- a date that has actually become more
the 1953 date for the coinage, as will be seen.
Adding gravitas to
that supposition are a few encouraging
I have received from long-time friends and working
this one from Al Bongarzone:
Over the years, I have maintained contact with only one fellow engineering student, Don Lauria. He reminded me that he had no interest in "giant brains" during the early fifties. Decades later, though, Don became a computer entrepreneur, selling and applying software-intensive data processing systems for small businesses. With regret, Don admits to having no recollection today of when or where he first encountered the word 'software'.
With some effort, I tracked down another fellow student, Angelo DeGrace. In view of my neglect for our friendship, I was not comfortable asking him up front to ransack his recollections about the word 'software'. Later on, when I was leaving on vacation, I called him for a chat. He was just entering his third session of chemotherapy. When I returned, Angelo DeGrace was gone.
Ten persons on the staff at UCLA in
1953 would be the
most likely narrators of Established
...would have heard their bespectacled instructor use the word 'software' more than once, making them all likely sources for Established Stories, one might expect. There were more than a hundred of them, and I may have kept those rosters for a dozen residential moves.
Foremost, there were four students in one class who were all from TRWP (now TRW). They pulled their neckties loose and sat together in the front row taking copious notes...
An "adventure" that started out as a
ostensibly on behalf of my progeny had been fraught
with set-backs and
disappointments and now was becoming an ego-driven
obsession. Forget October,
1953. Anything before
1960 -- OED's
earliest citation -- will do. I took a
deep breath and decided
to launch an all out search-and-query mission
targeting my other colleagues
at TRW. I ransacked my memory and files and came
up with thirty names
Tracking them down one by one in a crescendo of correspondence and follow-ups, I encountered more obituaries and more memory lapses. Still, there was no turning back from my efforts to harvest pre-1960 Established Stories. I continued writing and calling and asking.
Suddenly the endeavor lost its meaning!