Software History Research

Software History Research | Software History Center | Computer History Museum

The profound social implication of software is, and has been, the consequence of peoples’ decisions in their creation and use of code. In the stories of people lie the technical, business, and cultural histories of software – from timesharing services to the Cloud, from custom code to packaged programs, from developers to entrepreneurs, from smartphones to supercomputers. Is software history a history of the ineffable? Software – as pattern, algorithm, service, or even as thought – seems intangible. From another perspective, software – that which computers do – is concrete, even familiar. Software history can be built from people-centered stories. Always and everywhere, it is people who make software. The existence of code is the story of the people who made it.

Computer programs are inherently performative. People create code in order to run it. The full meaning of software is to be found in its performance, which presents real challenges and great opportunities for software history.

At the Software History Center we are exploring the pursuit of these people-centered stories and the documentation of software-in-action to present software history and its implications to diverse publics. We are actively researching and developing best practices for preserving our extensive collection of early software.

PowerPoint Project

Selection of PowerPoint software in Museum's Collection.

David C. Brock is leading the team’s effort to document and interpret the origins, development, and expanding use of PowerPoint. With over a billion active copies, PowerPoint has achieved a remarkable position in the public communication of information. Often, if the PowerPoint won’t project, it is a show-stopper. A talk without a PowerPoint is a transgression. PowerPoint, and its rivals in the realm of presentation software, have become ubiquitous cultural tools. Where did they come from? Who made them? How did they work technically and socially? Our PowerPoint project is using oral history, manuscript archives, source code listings, video-documentation of historical software-in-action, and digital preservation to get at these questions. Stay tuned for the results of our work on the @CHM Blog.

Some of our completed oral histories

Key archival manuscript collection for the project

Xerox Alto Software Project

May 1979 Xerox Alto Commercial  

To put it plainly, much of what is most familiar in people’s experiences of personal computing – a graphical user interface with mouse-based point-and-click, What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get application software like word processing, paint and draw programs, local-area networking, user-friendly electronic mail, and object-oriented programming – came together in the Xerox Alto created at Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s.

Hansen Hsu is leading the team’s planning for a significant project to document and interpret the story of the Xerox Alto’s seminal software. The project will draw from and build upon the Museum’s rich, deep and varied collections on the Xerox Alto and its software.

The Museum has a large collection of oral history interviews with key figures in the Xerox Alto software story, like Adele Goldberg. It holds historical footage of the people behind the Alto and its software, such as this series of talks from the mid-1980s.

Historical Footage

Remarkable collection of Alto software, including source code

For More Information

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Software History Center
Computer History Museum
Software History Center
1401 N Shoreline Blvd.,
Mountain View, CA 94043