The Computer Boys Take Over
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From History of Computing

The Computer Boys Take Over

Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise

By Nathan L. Ensmenger

The contentious history of the computer programmers who developed the software that made the computer revolution possible.





The contentious history of the computer programmers who developed the software that made the computer revolution possible.

This is a book about the computer revolution of the mid-twentieth century and the people who made it possible. Unlike most histories of computing, it is not a book about machines, inventors, or entrepreneurs. Instead, it tells the story of the vast but largely anonymous legions of computer specialists—programmers, systems analysts, and other software developers—who transformed the electronic computer from a scientific curiosity into the defining technology of the modern era. As the systems that they built became increasingly powerful and ubiquitous, these specialists became the focus of a series of critiques of the social and organizational impact of electronic computing. To many of their contemporaries, it seemed the “computer boys” were taking over, not just in the corporate setting, but also in government, politics, and society in general.

In The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger traces the rise to power of the computer expert in modern American society. His rich and nuanced portrayal of the men and women (a surprising number of the “computer boys” were, in fact, female) who built their careers around the novel technology of electronic computing explores issues of power, identity, and expertise that have only become more significant in our increasingly computerized society.

In his recasting of the drama of the computer revolution through the eyes of its principle revolutionaries, Ensmenger reminds us that the computerization of modern society was not an inevitable process driven by impersonal technological or economic imperatives, but was rather a creative, contentious, and above all, fundamentally human development.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262050937 336 pp. | 9 in x 6 in 16 b&w illus.


$25.00 X ISBN: 9780262517966 336 pp. | 9 in x 6 in 16 b&w illus.


  • ...Ensmenger has crafted an orderly and well organized argument that the dynamics of managing computer firms have often been as complex as the subject matter itself... In this important way, The Computer Boys Take Over is learned, well-documented with citations, and often humorous—with numerous period cartoons and company advertisements that nicely support the text. Such a study of computing's early and arguably most important years, is long overdue.

    High Tech History blog


  • The Computer Boys Take Over rewrites the history of computing by recounting the development of software in terms of labor, gender, and professionalization. Ensmenger meets the long-standing challenge to reform computer history by employing themes of vital interest to the general history of science and technology.

    Ronald Kline

    Bovay Professor in History and Ethics of Engineering, Cornell University

  • The Computer Boys Take Over shows how computer programmers struggled for professional legitimacy and organizational recognition from the early days of ENIAC through the $300 billion Y2K crisis. Ensmenger's descriptions of 'computer science' and 'software engineering,' as well as his portraits of Maurice Wilkes, Alan Turing, John Backus, Edsger Dijkstra, Fred Brooks, and other pioneers, give a compelling introduction to the field.

    Thomas J. Misa

    director of the Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota

  • This book provides the most holistic approach to the history of the development of programming and computer systems so far written. By embedding this history in a sociological and political context, Professor Ensmenger has added hugely to our understanding of how the world of computing and its work practices came to be.

    Martin Campbell-Kelly

    Professor of Computer Science, Warwick University