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Archeology is the Peeping Tom of science

                        Jim Bishop
                  Journalist and Author (1907 - 1987)

ACM DL Author-ize serviceDigging CACM
Phillip G. Armour
Communications of the ACM - 50th anniversary issue: 1958 - 2008, 2008

Into the Depths...                                                           

CACM editors asked me to come up with an article to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Communications.  And so it was late one evening, I led an expedition down into the stygian depths of my basement in search of the earliest copy of CACM.  Amid boxes of ancient cancelled checks, yellowing National Geographic magazines and fading but still blue copies of SIGSOFT proceedings, I unearthed the oldest copy of CACM known to me.

It was the February 1985 issue


By the time I encountered CACM it was a relatively advanced organism.  Proto-CACM editions have been traced in the historical record back to 1958.  This Paleolithic CACM contained such advances in computer science as a computation of Newton's approximation for square root calculation, and the "code" for a binary counter for an IBM 650 calculater (sic) including the actual "core" locations and decimal machine instructions (programmed in Linear-C?).

The issue also contained a hand-drawn control flowchart of the process--the software equivalent of the Cro Magnon Lascaux cave paintings.

FEBRUARY 1985                                               

By February 1985, we were in a different era.  It is interesting to compare the articles then and now.  Some are sooo dated, while others topical and even prescient.  For example:

Programming Pearls                                            

A most anecdotal piece on the purpose, process, and pitfalls of programming.  It included a story about a programmer who could log in while seated, but got booted off if he stood up.  Another tale related an international banking system that stopped dead if someone entered the capital of Ecuador.

Grosch's Law                                                       

Formulated by Herb Grosch (an ACM Fellow in 1995), it inferred that the price of a computer will rise as the square root of its power.  According to this law, one of today's Xbox machines should cost $93 million.  Clearly, Moore's Law has trumped Grosch's Law.


According to an article on "readability" of computer magazines (using the disturbingly named "Flesch Reading Index"), CACM in 1985 was more readable than any of its competitors at the time.  It has certainly had more staying power, since the top four mags in circulation in 1985 (Infosystems, Datamation, Computer Decisions, and Mini-Micro Systems (!) are all extinct species now (though Datamation exists in online form).

Nicklaus Wirth                                                     

In accepting the 1984 ACM Turing Award identified as key issues: the need to separate requirements into the essential and "nice to have".  He thought that any tools used must not require more effort to learn than they the effort they save.  He also thought that each project is a learning experience supported by the "elusive and subtle" element of an enthusiastic team that believes in the worth of the endeavor.  Well, that hasn't changed.

Selecting Decision Support Software                       

This was a process article on how to select DSS software.  It was a blast to see the screen shots of Lotus 1-2-3.  With a few changes the process would work today though the target would be different.  Just goes to show that systems may come and systems may go, but process lives forever.

Programmer Productivity                                       

This starts with a complaint about the lack of empirical research in what really helps programmers, but the list of software tools desired shows we've come a long way.  Screen editor anyone?

Event Simulation Language                                      

With 56 citations, this could have been written yesterday.  I don't think we've moved forward much in this area.

Efficiency of List Updates                                           

A really obtuse article with theorems and proofs, must have hammered the Flesch readability score for this particular issue.  But then it was in the Research Contributions section (which CACM is re-establishing in 2008).

Positions Vacant in CS                                             

Gosh, there were a lot--186 by my count.  I don't think the market is quite as brisk today. 

Whenever we look back in time, in fashion, in popular music, and in computer science, we can see things which are odd and dated, even humorous and weird.  But we can also see things which truly indicated where the business has been and where it is going.  


Digging CACM