A photograph of computing pioneer, Grace Hopper
Computer programming pioneer, Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960. Author: Unknown. Via Wikimedia Commons

The importance of history

When I used to teach secondary school science, I would pepper my lessons with various stories and anecdotes that were relevant to the lesson. For instance, when I was teaching students about the structure of the atom and the work that Rutherford pioneered it was always interesting to note that he was once quoted as having said:

Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.

Yet ironically he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Similarly, students enjoyed historical tidbits such as the fact that Isaac Newton conducted experiments with light by piercing his eyeball with a needle, or that Alfred Nobel invented the Peace Prize to ensure that he was remembered for more than just inventing dynamite.

By learning the history of a subject you can help bring it alive in the minds of those you are teaching.

This is especially important for Computer Science. The subject is still in its infancy. Whereas we’re still using the equations created by Newton over 300 years ago to launch rockets into space, when it comes to computer technology we’re using theories derived over the last few decades in everyday life.

The subject is incredibly fast paced, with dramatic changes seeming to occur every few years. You only have to look at advances in the fields of machine learning, automation and artificial intelligence to realise that the field of Computer Science may look like a very different world in a decade’s time. Yet it all mostly stems from those simple discoveries made by a handful of individuals between the late 1930s and the early 1980s.

If you want to learn more about the history of the subject, I’d like to recommend a couple of books.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is an excellent book detailing the work done by some pioneers in the AI lab at MIT in the 1960s and 1970s.

Electronic Dreams talks about the boom in microcomputers in the UK in the 1980s.

Alan Turing: The Enigma is an excellent biography of the father of computer science himself.

There is also a fantastic YouTube series called Crash Course: Computer Science, with Carrie Anne Philbin, which really is worth watching.

How might you introduce a little of the history of the subject into your lessons, and do you think it a valuable use of a learner’s classroom time?

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How Computers Work: Demystifying Computation

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