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RAND and the Information Evolution: A History in Essays and Vignettes.

RAND and the Information Evolution: A History in Essays and Vignettes. By Willis H. Ware. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2008. Figures. Photographs. Tables. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxvi, 201. $34.00 Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8330-4513-3

News stories or magazine articles about rapidly advancing information technology, social networking via the World Wide Web, and cyber security issues have become commonplace in recent years. Most people, especially youngsters, remain blissfully ignorant of how electronic computing evolved in the several decades after World War II and, ultimately, enabled development of today's Internet. In this book, electrical engineer and longtime RAND employee Ware has compiled recollections-his own and those of esteemed colleagues--to author an insightful glimpse into RAND's contributions to the then-burgeoning field of computer science.

Building initially on a legacy of wartime collaboration with the U.S. military and relying primarily on Air Force (USAF) funding and encouragement, RAND's computing cadre earned bragging rights for numerous accomplishments: design and development of some of the best early hardware; innovation of support software to enable efficient, convenient programming and computer usage; pioneering of computer- and mathematics-based approaches to analytical studies; first exploitation of many mathematical techniques for solving real-world USAF problems; development of the first online, interactive, terminal-based computer system to which a number of USAF users had remote access via telephone connections; and more. The Atomic Energy Commission and the Advanced Research Projects Agency also financially supported RAND's cutting-edge computing research and benefited from its development projects.

As its subtitle suggests, RAND and the Information Evolution contains project essays and a handful of light-hearted vignettes labeled as "lore, snippets, and snapshots." Preceding those portions are chapters covering infrastructural topics: the genesis and growth of RAND and its Computer Sciences Department, with particular attention to key individuals; acquisition of early computing equipment, from the Reeves Electronic Analog Computer in the late 1940s to the JOHNNIAC digital computer in the early 1950s; and expansion over time of RAND's computing facilities at the corporation's campus in Santa Monica, California. The longest chapter consists of more than two dozen short essays, roughly in chronological order, that exemplify the variety of RAND's major computer-science research projects: function approximations in digital computing; random digits and normal deviates; bombing simulator (aka pinball machine); air-combat room; videographics; time-shared computing; packet switching; word processing; mail handling; computational linguistics; information-system security; and more. How better to end than with vignettes that have such tantalizing titles as 'he Gavel Caper," "Soviet Cybernetics," "The Mengel Joint," and "The Chiquita[R] Banana War"?

While a scholarly treatise on RAND's role in information-processing evolution--not revolution--remains to be researched and written, Ware's volume temporarily fills the historical void. He has culled essential details from dozens of RAND reports, papers, memoranda, and other documents; e-mail exchanges with retired colleagues; oral history transcripts; newspaper stories and journal articles; books; and assorted other materials. Essentially a collective memoir, this is a valuable addition to the historical literature on the emergence of computer science as a profession. Now that Ware has drawn attention to how he and his associates at RAND contributed to the advancement of computing capabilities and applications, professional historians ought to work on fleshing out this fascinating story.

Dr. Rick W. Sturdevant, Deputy Director of History, HQ Air Force Space Command
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Author:Sturdevant, Rick W.
Publication:Air Power History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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