Technology and War (WIP)

Topics and concepts:

  • History of technology development during and after World War II and Cold War.
  • Graphical interfaces for human interaction and combinatorial technologies.
  • University research and government funding for the developing of technology during war.

Research questions

  • In what ways would the technology around computers be where it is, or less advanced, if World War II hadn’t happened?
  • Under what circumstances do the combination of international conflict and the involvement of government motivates, and in other cases prevent, the advancement of technology?

I am shaping both questions in the historical context of World War II and Cold War to analyze beyond the ‘what if’ scenarios and specify which were the key moments in history that signified a before and after for the technology around computers, who were the key actors behind them, and how did it shape and define the computers we use today and how we use them.


My starting point is this short article on Guru Magazine that attempts to answer this hypothetical question. I’ll use it as a guide for the research questions but not as a source of facts since I believe it is a little bit outdated.

For main and general concepts:

  • Denning, Peter J. “Great principles of computing.” Communications of the ACM 46.11 (2003): 15-20.

I’ll also add some of the readings during week 9 of our course: “Computers as Information Processors & Metamedia Interfaces”:

  • Video Documentary: Alan Kay on the history of graphical interfaces: Youtube | Internet Archive
  • Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic, July, 1945. (Also etext version in PDF.): a visionary and influential essay anticipating many aspects of information society. Because of his concern for the direction of scientific efforts toward destruction, rather than understanding, Bush introduces his concept of the memex, a collective memory machine that would make knowledge more accessible.
  • J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960) | “The Computer as Communication Device” (1968): “In many ways, his initiatives and the teams of engineers he got funded are the bridge between war-time and Cold War computing and computers as we know them now. Note the attempt to work with the “symbiosis” metaphor as a way to humanize computing, and proposing interaction concepts that could not be technically implemented at the time. He was working toward a model of computing as an interactive cognitive artefact” (Irvine).
  • Ivan Sutherland, “Sketchpad: A Man-Machine Graphical Communication System” (1963): Expanding on techniques for screen interfaces for military radar, Sutherland was way ahead of his time, and it took many years for the whole combinatorial array of technologies to catch up for implementing the concepts. The Sketchpad concepts inspired Engelbart, Alan Kay (Dynabook), and the development of all screen interactive technologies that we know today” (Irvine).
  • Engelbart,Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” First published, 1962. As reprinted in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003: “Engelbart is best known for inventing the graphical interface, the “desktop computer metaphor,” the mouse, and the hyperlink. His research and development teams at Stanford in the 1960s-70s were influenced by Vannevar Bush’s vision and motivated by a new conception of computers not simply as business, government, or military machines for instrumental ends but as aids for core human cognitive tasks that could be open to everyone. His approach to computer interfaces using interaction with a CRT tube display (early TV screen) launched an extensive HCI engineering/design and computing community around user interaction and “augmenting” (not replacing or simulating) human intelligence and cognitive needs” (Irvine).

In addition to these I will add a source on how university research had an impact on the advancement of technology during World War II and Cold War:

  • Geiger, Roger L. Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since World War II. Transaction Publishers, 2008.

I’m still no entirely sure how to apply some of the other concepts we’ve learned during the class, or how to make it more specific with a study case. I guess I could talk specifically about the developing and advancement of computers in this context, but I would have to leave so much out.




The annotations for the sources cited under “week 9” were written by Professor Irvine.