Students create archival history of computing at MIT

Undergraduates work with Digital Humanities at MIT and MIT Libraries' Distinctive Collections to digitize and contextualize archives

With the announcement of the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing in fall 2018, MIT began reshaping itself to address the opportunities and challenges presented by the prevalence of computing and the rise of artificial intelligence. Computation is ubiquitous today — and EECS the largest department at MIT — but how did computing begin at the Institute? A new project from Digital Humanities at MIT aims to shed light on the early days of computing at MIT.

Archival History of Computing at MIT, 1950-62” was created by a team of undergraduate students in collaboration with the staff of the Programs in Digital Humanities and the MIT Libraries. Starting in November 2018, participants studied the MIT Computation Center archives from the Libraries’ Distinctive Collections, digitized documents, created metadata, programmed the underlying code for the website, wrote stories about the archive, and conducted analyses in code and words. The recently launched website includes stories — ranging from the “Rise and Fall of Project Whirlwind,” about the first large-scale and high-speed computer, to uncovering the role of women  — as well as simulations of performing basic programming operations on the IBM 704 computer and an interactive visualization showing the connections between the top 100 contributors in the Computation Center archives.

“With 150 years of archival history, the MIT Libraries’ Distinctive Collections played a crucial role in our project by allowing us to utilize their documents and scan them, as well as providing staff support from Distinctive Collections and subject liaison librarians,” writes Angelica Catillejos in her story, “Behind the Scenes.”

Read more about the work that went into the project and explore the archive.