Software for Europe is a collaborative research project in the making. It will offer a historical contribution to the ESF program Inventing Europe.
Software has played a significant and under-explored role in the shaping of postwar Europe. This role is addressed through the tension between two contrasting trajectories of computer appropriation: the direct importation of applications software, dominated by IBM cultures (understood here as diverse in nature), and software as the substance of university-industry co-entrepreneurship.
Software in the shaping of Europe
Software underlies communication worldwide. Its quiet pervasiveness provides an ideal route to integrate the history of technology into histories of the broadest scope. Electronic connection increasingly signals connection to the events that matter from a political, cultural or economic perspective; its absence signals exclusion. More than technically facilitating our functioning, software presents the optics of reality, our world picture. Modern life rests on ubiquitous computing; for a proper understanding of everyday experience, the study of the role of software is crucial. Europe has always had a significant and distinctive role in the development of software.
We identify two major styles of appropriation of information technology, which will be traced and contrasted across the second half of the twentieth century. The first involves the adoption of pre-existing artefacts and their regimes; the second, in cases where the actual artefacts may be locally and distinctly developed, focuses on the appropriation of computing concepts in which cross-border commonalities may be found.
Artefact appropriation: IBM and Europe
The first style has been most common in data-processing in the fields of banking, insurance and civil service, where national markets were dominated by the US corporation International Business Machines (IBM.). The received cliché holds that IBM’s clients were encouraged to follow a monolithic corporate culture, including the scripts of its machinery: our aim here is to question this, pointing both to the agency of national users and to the multiplicity of meanings resulting from IBM’s policy of local assimilation.
In countries like Finland, IBM stood for international progressivity, acting as an entry-point to Europe as it took its prospective clients to Stockholm or Paris; in the Netherlands, Belgium or France, by contrast, IBM rather symbolized American culture, even if clients travelled to Paris or to Stuttgart to see the latest models. IBM’s assimilationist tendency further inspired it to establish research laboratories in several European countries (it is presently celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first, in Zürich), thereby perhaps contributing to a European space for computer science. Software within this style of appropriation consisted primarily of application software and the tools for its implementation. Was there, beyond the symbolic and commercial role of IBM and its competitors, a hidden integrative force through the compatible, or at least comparable, technology of these actors?
Concept appropriation: ALGOL and the European space for software
The appropriation of the idea of computers, as opposed to the artefacts, appeared from the late 1940s in a variety of local initiatives, continuing a range of cultures of measuring and computing, both analog and digital.
During the 1950s, computing experts across Europe increasingly found themselves speaking a common language and addressing a common agenda. This integrative mood was capitalized on by UNESCO with the creation in 1959 of IFIPS, the International Federation for Information Processing Societies, in which groups from all countries, East and West, were allowed to participate. IFIP adopted a number of initiatives with strong European traits, notably ALGOL (for ALGOrithmic Language), an early example of a high-level programming language, used to communicate with machines in terms convenient and accessible to human operators. UNESCO, IFIP and ALGOL were unquestionably international: did they, ambiguously, also convey a sense of European character?
In the USA, according to Campbell-Kelly, by 1958 a software sector had emerged as an economic entity — that is, as a commercial software industry. Our aim is to treat the contrasting and under-explored case of a Europe in which no such sector existed. Typically, the computers manufactured in various European countries would be delivered without software; the task of writing code compilers and operating systems was taken on by academic teams outside the pre-existing commercial sphere. This pattern was seen in Amsterdam, Grenoble, Mainz, Munich, Vienna and Copenhagen. If this entrepreneurial spirit defied the academic convention of staying out of the muddle of private interest, the computer specialists may have acted as a counterculture; or perhaps the academic habitus was not as unambiguous as the European self-image would have it.