Nathan Ensmenger

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20052006 Forum on Word and Image

Nathan Ensmenger

Assistant Professor, History and Sociology of Science

"Building Castles in the Air": Computers, Codes, and the Art of Programming

Frederick P. Brooks, the famous computer scientist who served as the project manager for the single largest and most expensive software development effort ever undertaken in the history of the IBM Corporation, portrayed his occupation in surprisingly literary terms: "The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure-thought stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination."


Using such loftly language to describe such a stereotypically mundane occupation is striking but not unusual, notes Ensmenger. Indeed, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, computer programming was generally considered to be a uniquely creative activity. His investigation of the history of software development explores some of the ways in which computer programmers constructed for themselves a literary identity that gave them status, authority, and freedom from managerial oversight. The similarities between computer coding and other forms of inscription penetrate the culture and practice of computing. Dr Ensmenger?s current research looks at the larger significance of computer code as art, literature, and incantation.