The Early History of Computer Engineering – Part 1

With over 70,000 professional computer hardware engineers and over 20 ABET-accredited degree programmes, it’s easy to take computer engineering as a profession in its own right for granted. Yet information as to its origin remains scarce. Armed with that scare information available, we’re going to look here at the early history of the subject.

Engineers and early modern computing

Electrical engineers were in a good position to take on key roles in the early computing period. At the time, electrical engineering established close relationships with theology, theory domains, and application that would go on to prove relevant for digital computing. These trends were written about by David Mindell between the 1910s and mid-1940s, as well as by Atsushi Akera in the 1930s.

As the authors noted, communication and contour engineers made numerous theoretical contributions that proved fundamental to modern computing. Skills and knowledge in electrical engineering were also used to develop and improve such devices as electron tubes that would go on to be used in digital computers.

Other engineers, however, had no choice but to find ways around problems with modelling and simulation, which resulted in them being forced to explore new areas of numerical analysis while also looking at innovative calculating devices and methods.

Hybrid actors, multiple fields

That explains why the early history of modern computing saw the involvement of those with experience and backgrounds in electrical engineering. Building the very earliest digital computers, however, called for a number of various fields of knowledge and skills, which is why there were a number of hybrid actors with experience in multiple fields.

Paul Edwards made the point that the stored-program electronic computer was a representation of a convergence of machine logic (aka software) and machine calculation (aka mechanical) traditions, with the former largely associated with maths and formal logic and the latter with technology and engineering. James Cortada believed that combining the two traditions meant that the physicist had to collaborate with the mathematician and the engineer had to collaborate with the electrician.

Clarity needed in jurisdictions

It was less clear, however, when it came to the length of the jurisdiction of these fields regarding how far they would extend as computers developed, never mind what their relative position and status would be to each other.

The prominence of these issues was clear in many of the earliest digital computer projects, which largely took place in universities in the 1940s and 50s. The early development of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) machine and the Harvard Mark computers suggested a particular model for the organisation of knowledge in the field, with mathematicians and scientists having key roles to play and with engineering and engineers left with bit-part roles.

There was a different hierarchy on display, however, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Servomechanisms Laboratory and Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering, with electrical engineers having a far larger role to play in the development of the Whirlwind and ENIAC computers.