The Early History of Computer Engineering – Part 3

After the inaugural JCC event, the terms “computer engineering” and “computer engineer” began to be used with increasing frequency, such as in a 1953 issue of an IRE publication. In that issue, IBM engineer Werner Buchholz explained the goal was to offer a series of articles designed to educate non-specialist readers in a new field known as electronic computer engineering.

Computer engineers in the workforce

Along with the acknowledgement of computer design and engineering as a profession in its own right, computer development transitioned from universities to the private sector. The 1950s saw a large number of companies enter the field.

Individuals representing companies, as opposed to universities, were prominent in the first JCC’s organising committee. The new industry was also responsible for linking the computer engineer to pre-existing academic credentials, such as electrical engineering degrees.

Employment ads were another example of the increasing use of the term “computer engineer”. These ads suggested that suitable employees to take on computer design and development roles were electrical engineers, with space for mathematicians and scientists to assume some specialised positions.

Conclusion

The development of the commercial computer industry that came about in the 50s occurred alongside a further division of the identity of the computer engineer. Variants like “computer engineer” and “analogue computer engineer” gradually diminished, as did “computer engineer”. It was a way of describing engineers who solved problems with computers.

This period further saw a stronger distinction made between computer engineers and those who were more focused on application, such as numerical analysts and programmers. In the late 50s, we saw the introduction of key terms that quickly gained traction. Contrary to how Zadeh saw computing i.e. a field that was owned by engineers, it became more and more apparent that computer hardware design and development was their main jurisdiction.

A paper from Grace Murray Hopper, published in 1953 and which was co-written with John Mauchly, talked about how programmers found new ways of adapting computers to specific applications while engineers were largely focused on hardware and circuits.

The co-authors argued that more awareness should exist among computer designers over programming techniques and concerns. They believed that the engineer should be assisted by the programmer when it came to assessing suggested engineering plans. Remarks like these showed how the division between programmers and computer engineers had accelerated.

Early computer engineers were typically trained as electrical engineers who, at the most, took a few courses in computer design and development. This gap continued for years. The first U.S.-based accredited computer engineering programmes were only launched in the 1970s. Computer engineering education is a whole chapter in itself in the realm of the subject’s overall history.

Some have worked on documenting how the various fields within computing have developed in other areas of the world. Within the U.S., however, understanding the lasting influence and vitality of computer engineering as an academic subject and profession in its own right requires going back to the major fundamental developments in the 1940s and 50s.