Technology and the Making of Europe


Software for Europe Constructing Europe through Software

Project leader: Gerard Alberts

SOFT-EU addresses the role of software in the shaping of post-war Europe through the tensions between two contrasting modes of computer technology appropriation: the direct importation of applications software, and the development of software through university-industry co-entrepreneurship; absorbing IBM-culture versus aspiring an ALGOL-culture. Writing a contextual history of software allows addressing historical themes concerning Europe and Europeanness in the second half of the 20th century. In the initial era of post-war reconstruction, building a computing machine could be seen as a source of specifically national pride; a decade later, the shift from hardware to software initiatives appeared to present a very different, universalist, character. SOFT-EU studies what informed this change and what was the role of underlying software standards in the move towards European unification and the Cold War. “Software for Europe” uses software as a lens to focus on the relations between information technology use and the shaping of European policies and infrastructures, examine whether there have been specifically ‘European’ styles or modes of working in software development, and to what extent software practices have contributed to reinventions of Europe. Our main theme within “Inventing Europe” is constructing European ways of knowing.


Artifact Appropriation: IBM and Europe

The first mode of appropriation has been most common in data-processing in the fields of banking, insurance and civil service. European national markets were typically dominated from the 1950s by US corporations, most notably International Business Machines (IBM), which operated on a vastly greater scale than its competitors and was the most strongly perceived as “American” in character. Cliché has it 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 some countries, including Finland, IBM stood for international progressiveness, 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. The IBM users’ organization, SHARE, was renowned for its influence on company policy and on the nature of IBM software as it developed. 1966 saw the foundation of an affiliate group, SHARE European Association (SEAS.) In European eyes, the very same adoption of technology might appear as an entry point to modern life or as conservative business imposing itself, as progressive western or decadent American culture. Perceptions of the relations between modernity, modern technology and American culture were ambiguous. Was there, beyond the symbolic and commercial role of IBM and its competitors, a hidden integrating, and perhaps at the same time dis-integrating influence in the technology and policy of these actors?


Concept Appropriation: ALGOL and the European Space for Software

The explicit appropriation of shared ideas about computers, as distinct from the artefacts, is visible from the late 1940s in a variety of local initiatives grounded in established collaborative cultures of measuring and computing; here, the need for software played a key role. Whereas, in the USA, a commercial software sector had identifiably emerged by 1958, Europe presents an under-explored case 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. In 1959, UNESCO capitalized on the established integrative tendency with the formation of what became the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP), an umbrella for national organizations and a forum for collaborative activity. Though its remit was global, IFIP is remembered for a number of initiatives with strong European traits. Most notable of these is 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. The “purity” of the mathematically-refined ALGOL is widely contrasted, in received opinion, with the less elegant but more widely-applied language FORTRAN, a product of IBM’s US-focused corporate culture. How was this ambiguity negotiated — could the cultures promoted by UNESCO, IFIP and ALGOL be both European and global? Did national funding agencies promote the construction of particular images? Was the “ALGOL effort” dominant and centralizing within Europe? Software for Europe proposes as a working hypothesis that, beyond the effort to define a new language, the culture of software co-entrepreneurship across borders represented by ALGOL helped to create a specifically European space for software.

Watch the introduction video about Software for Europe: Constructing Europe through Software by project leader Gerard Alberts!


Key Publications

  • Paju, Petri. "National Projects and International Users: Finland and Early European computerization". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. Vol. 30, 4/2008, 77–91.
  • Mols, Sandra, 2008, ‘Chasing Computational Error: How Georges Lemaître Became Fascinated with Decimal Digits, 1930s-1960s. Part 2: Appropriating Computing at the Laboratoire de Recherches Numériques’, Revue des Questions Scientifiques, 179(3), 265-322.
  • Mols, Sandra, 2008, ‘Chasing Computational Error: How Georges Lemaître Became Fascinated with Decimal Digits, 1930s-1960s. Part 1: Lemaître's Deflection towards Computational Issues’, Revue des Questions Scientifiques, 179(2), 161-214.
  • Schlombs, Corinna. ‘Engineering international expansion: IBM and Remington Rand in European computer markets’, IEEE Annals for the History of Computing30: 4 (2008), 42-58.


Working Papers