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Brian Lennon (RSA)

When Feb 28, 2017
from 11:45 AM to 01:00 PM
Where 121 Borland
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Brian Lennon, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

A Third Language: Translation and Automation in Early Computing 

This presentation concerns the translation metaphors employed by the first programmers of electronic computers as they both borrowed and invented terms for describing the writing and execution of programs. The phrase “higher-level language,” now widely used to describe the notation systems that emerged in the mid-1950s combining algebraic expressions with English-language keywords, refers to such systems’ design for abstraction of hardware-dependent numeric and alphanumeric operation codes. Before settling on such technical categorical terms as “higher-level language,” programmers borrowed from the national- and comparative philological domain of natural or human languages to describe relationships among activities and processes in computing. Words like “foreign,” “native,” “translation,” and “translatability” were widely used, during the 1950s, often alongside or in combination with new terms from a nascent technical lexicon. I argue that the history of computing can be understood as a history of recursive automation, in the successive addition of layers of control through which higher- and lower-level codes are “translated” to each other. From the beginning, programmers had as their goal not only the automation of computation (that is, arithmetic calculation and other forms of data processing), but the automation of the human activity of programming as we understand it today, a special class of human labor