The Origins and Early History of
Computer Engineering in the
Brent K. Jesiek
In the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the field of computer engineering
emerged in the United States as the jurisdiction of engineering
expanded to include computer hardware design. This article explores
the establishment of computer engineering as a distinct field or
specialty, primarily in the context of professional societies and private
With more than 70,000 computer hardware
engineers working professionally and more
than 200 computer engineering bachelor’s
degree programs accredited by ABET, the ex-
istence of computer engineering as a distinct
professional specialty in the United States is
easily taken for granted.
Yet the contempo-
rary vitality of the field tells little of its ori-
trained and employed as computer engi-
neers? What counts as computer engineering
knowledge and practice? How is computer
engineering related to other technical fields?
And how have these things varied over time
and in different contexts? This study begins
addressing such questions through the inves-
tigation of the field’s early history, thereby
making a contribution to a historical litera-
ture that has largely overlooked the topic.
The account presented here also points to
larger implications. By documenting the
emergence of a group of technical professio-
nals mainly associated with computer hard-
ware design, this study asks what this
linking of identity and technology means
for how computer engineers are trained,
how they interface with other professionals,
and what kinds of technologies they develop.
As other studies of ‘‘sociotechnical coproduc-
tion’’ demonstrate, the ways in which people
are organized in groups and institutions can
profoundly influence the technologies they
Conversely, the form and structure
of technologies often significantly impact
how people live and work. This investigation
therefore views the association of computer
engineers with hardware as a partially contin-
gent arrangement of disparate social and
technical elements—or what Paul Edwards
calls a ‘‘heterogeneous ensemble’’—that
may favor certain kinds of computer designs
To better understand the ‘‘divisions of ex-
pert labor’’ that are central to this ensemble,
this study also draws three points of inspira-
tion from sociologist Andrew Abbott.
the development of professional ‘‘jurisdic-
tions’’ is mainly about establishing and main-
taining control over specific work tasks in
contexts of practice—that is, ‘‘the link be-
tween a profession and its work.’’
portant is a profession’s ability to develop,
control, and transmit abstract bodies of ex-
pert knowledge, especially in academic set-
Second, technological change can
spur reconfigurations of jurisdictions, such
as by eliminating and/or creating work
And third, Abbott’s systems-oriented
approach emphasizes how professions are sig-
nificantly defined by their relationships with
other fields and occupations.
Building on these insights, this article lev-
erages both primary and secondary sources to
detail the origins and early development of
computer engineering as a distinct profes-
sional field. Although mainly focused on
the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the account
acknowledges important antecedent trends
and longer-term implications. It follows
closely the intertwining of various sociotech-
nical elements, from professional identities
and organizations to specific bodies of
6IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 1058-6180/13/$31.00
c2013 IEEEPublished by the IEEE Computer Society
knowledge, work tasks, and technological
domains. The account emphasizes the per-
spectives of engineers, but other relevant
actors and viewpoints are noted. My focus
on the United States is also intentional be-
cause it provides a more manageable history
focused on one of the field’s main originating
Engineers and Early Modern
Electrical engineers were well positioned to as-
sume prominent roles in the early computer
field. The interwar period was important in
this regard, with electrical engineering devel-
oping close ties to many domains of theory,
technology, and application that ultimately
proved relevant for digital computing. Such
trends are documented in David Mindell’s his-
tory of control systems from the 1910s to mid-
1940s and Atsushi Akera’s summary of com-
puter-related innovations in mathematics
and electronics in the 1930s.
authors explain, control and communications
engineers made many theoretical contribu-
tions that were foundational to modern com-
puting. Electrical engineering knowledge and
skills were also leveraged to create and refine
devices such as electron tubes that were later
used in digital computers. Still other engineers
grappled with thorny simulation and model-
ing problems, leading them into new domains
of numerical analysis while exploring novel
calculating methods and devices.
It is therefore not surprising that the early
history of modern computing is checkered
with individuals with electrical engineering
backgrounds and experience. Yet building
the first digital computers required many dif-
ferent skills and bodies of knowledge, and the
early field attracted numerous ‘‘hybrid’’
actors whose credentials spanned various
fields. As Paul Edwards argued, the stored-
program electronic computer represented a
convergence of ‘‘machine calculation (me-
chanical) and machine logic (software) tradi-
tions’’—the former mainly associated with
engineering and technology, the latter with
mathematics and formal logic.
tada added that melding these traditions
meant ‘‘[t]he electrician had to work with
the engineer and the mathematician with
the physicist to make it happen.’’
offered an even more nuanced formulation:
The digital electronic computer married three his-
torical lines: mathematical logic, engineering,
and science. Mathematical logic brought
notations for algorithms, universal machines,
and mapping from logic formulas to physical
switching circuits. Engineering brought passion-
ate know-how for mechanical calculation and
much expertise in electronics and electro-me-
chanical systems. Science brought a wealth of
applications and methods for predicting the be-
havior of physical systems from their computa-
Nonetheless, it was unclear how far the ju-
risdiction of these fields might extend as
computing developed, much less what their
status and position would be relative to one
The salience of such issues was evident in
many of the first digital computer projects,
which were mainly situated in university
environments from the 1940s into the
The history of the Harvard Mark se-
ries of computers and Princeton’s Institute
of Advanced Studies (IAS) machine suggested
one model for organizing expertise in the
field, with scientists and mathematicians
playing leading roles and largely overshadow-
ing engineers and engineering.
ent hierarchy was evident at the University
of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical
Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology’s Servomechanisms Labora-
tory, where electrical engineers played prom-
inent roles in developing the ENIAC and
Still other cases
reveal important jurisdictional shifts, such as
Akera’s description of how electronic engi-
neers at the National Bureau of Standards
gradually took over computer design work,
thereby displacing applied mathematicians.
Many of these early computer projects
also occurred in tandem with a massive war-
time R&D program that had broader impacts
on many fields. And in many ways, this pe-
riod looked like a gathering windfall for elec-
trical engineers. As Michal McMahon noted,
were well positioned
to assume prominent
roles in the early
July–September 2013 7
‘‘The wartime R&D program powerfully
launched electronics as the nation’s domi-
nant technology in the postwar era,’’ in
turn opening up new educational and career
pathways for engineers.
Yet even this was a mixed blessing. With
analog electronics remaining prominent dur-
ing and after the war, few engineers were
deeply familiar with the kinds of discrete-sig-
nal devices needed to build digital com-
Furthermore, many younger
engineers with experience in technical areas
such as radar made many important advan-
ces in computer technology in the immedi-
ate postwar period. Paraphrasing Maurice
Wilkes, I. Bernard Cohen explained that
such men had ‘‘green fingers for electronic
circuits’’ and were adept at working with
‘‘wide band widths and short pulses.’’
Additionally, many of the better-known
contributions of electrical engineers to de-
fense R&D during this period centered not
on invention, but rather on administering re-
search programs and shaping policy.
Andrew Abbott noted, ‘‘electronic physicists’’
received credit for many technological inno-
vations, while engineers more typically un-
dertook project management activities or
more routine kinds of technical work.
son similarly showed how this lopsided rela-
tionship of physicists over engineers played
out in MIT’s Radiation Laboratory.
engineers faced off against scientists in con-
tests over status or influence, the latter fre-
quently had the upper hand.
As Akera argued, such hierarchies per-
sisted into the postwar period: ‘‘The applied
mathematicians who aided the physicists in
their wartime work first garnered the highest
authority with respect to computing re-
He also described how such status
differentials were accompanied by other
kinds of segmentation, and as different
groups of experts worked to clarify and estab-
lish their own jurisdictions in the nascent
field, they often embraced partially distinct
philosophies of computer design and use.
Against this backdrop, the following sections
look more closely at early attempts by electri-
cal engineers to claim their own sociotechni-
cal territories of computing.
Bringing Computing into Electrical
In the mid- and late-1940s, publications of the
American Institute of Electrical Engineers
(AIEE) and Institute of Radio Engineers
(IRE)—which later merged to form
IEEE—revealed a growing desire for engineers
to expand their jurisdictions into computing.
Yet the different orientations and infrastruc-
tures of the two organizations had major
implications for the roles they assumed.
The AIEE and Computing
Established in 1884 and historically focused on
power engineering, the AIEE was first to express
a formal interest in the computing field. In
1946 and 1947, a local AIEE chapter organized
a series of meetings on computers and comput-
ing at Columbia University. More importantly,
a seven-member subcommittee on Large-Scale
Computing Devices was established in 1946
in the AIEE’s Basic Sciences Technical Commit-
The Moore School’s John Grist Brainerd
helped lead the group’s founding, and General
Electric power engineer Charles Concordia was
its first chair. Concordia later recounted diffi-
culties forming the group when ‘‘there were
not then a great many AIEE members familiar
with the field.’’
Nonetheless, in 1948 the
AIEE elevated the group’s status to form the
Committee on Computing Devices (CCD).
Initially, the committee primarily focused
on analog computing, especially as applied to
the analysis of electric power systems. Its
scope soon expanded, however, including
through separate subcommittees dedicated
to analog and digital computing. The CCD
also emphasized systems and components
in some of its early activities. As Concordia
later explained, the first meeting of the
subcommittee was focused on ‘‘computing
devices, not on applications.’’
tion was also evident in a 1948 statement of
The treatment of all matters in which the dom-
inant factors are the requirements, design, con-
struction, selection, installation, and operation
of machinery and devices relating to computing
devices, including studies of the electromag-
netic, electronic, and mechanical phenomena
of such devices. Fundamental mathematic, elec-
tronic, and properties of materials entering into
these devices are not included.
This passage is notable for how it demar-
cated the group’s boundaries in relation to
other milieus of technical expertise, includ-
ing those falling within the jurisdictions of
other AIEE technical committees and sub-
committees (such as those concerned with
device physics or materials science).
The AIEE computing group also spurred
new publications and conference sessions,
including some intended to familiarize AIEE
The Origins and Early History of Computer Engineering in the United States
8IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
members with computing. In 1946, for exam-
ple, Harvard’s Howard H. Aiken and Grace
Murray Hopper coauthored a three-part
paper about the Harvard Mark I in Electrical
Engineering, the AIEE’s flagship journal.
addition to reviewing the history of mechan-
ical computing devices, the article presented
a lengthy account of the building and opera-
tion of the Mark I.
In subsequent years, news and articles
about computing appeared in AIEE publica-
tions with increasing frequency. In 1948,
one paper surveyed historical develop-
ments and contemporary trends related to
high-speed calculating machines, including
detailed descriptions of many computers.
Later that year, Brainerd and fellow Moore
School engineer T.K. Sharpless authored an
their introduction, they suggestively noted
that ‘‘[e]lectrical engineers in the United
Stated have had a major interest in the devel-
opment of large-scale computing devices.’’
They also identified AC calculating boards,
differential analyzers, and electromechanical
computing machines as key predecessors to
the ENIAC. Such commentaries suggest
early moves to create a history for the emerg-
ing field, with engineers portrayed as pivotal
The committee members also arranged
sessions at AIEE conferences. The first, in
1947, brought together ‘‘men from each of
the six leading centers of computer develop-
ment’’ and attracted a large audience of
A conference panel at the
AIEE’s 1947 summer meeting, on the other
hand, was focused on engineering applica-
tions of computing devices.
As noted by
Concordia, it proved more difficult to find
speakers, and the session ultimately featured
just two presentations and drew approxi-
mately 70 attendees.
and development, rather than applications,
were clearly of greater interest for AIEE
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, AIEE
publications and meetings continued to em-
phasize digital computer systems and compo-
nents. At the 1949 Winter General Meeting,
for example, a session on digital computers
featured four papers on the characteristics
and design of systems and components, but
just one on applications.
Notably, a paper
contributed by MIT’s Jay Forrester was
suggestively titled ‘‘Outlook for Electronic
Digital Computers—The Scope of the Engi-
Enthusiasm for computing among AIEE
gauge. But given the AIEE’s general orienta-
tion toward power engineering rather than
electronics, interest was likely confined to a
small group. In fact, one commentator later
explained that AIEE members, including
those active in the computing field, tended
to be older, ‘‘more conservative, and more
old fashioned’’ than their IRE peers.
other observer noted that the AIEE’s orienta-
tion toward the increasingly marginal area of
analog computing persisted into the 1950s.
Given these and other factors, the AIEE’s
CCD was increasingly overshadowed by the
IRE’s parallel efforts.
The IRE and Computing
Evidence of the IRE’s earliest moves into
computing can be found in a session on
‘‘Electronic Digital Computers’’ at the organ-
ization’s National Convention in 1947.
panel featured well-known computer pio-
neers and was mainly oriented toward digital
technology, including topics such as system
design, input devices, components, and
applications. A panel presentation by mathe-
matician Herman Goldstine, a Moore School
affiliate, is especially noteworthy given its
focus on the ‘‘interrelationship between the
engineer and mathematician in the develop-
ment of computing instruments.’’
sion was one of four at the conference that
was repeated due to high demand, suggesting
extensive interest in computing in the IRE.
This popularity was later reflected by sessions
on ‘‘systems’’ and ‘‘components’’ at the IRE’s
1948 National Convention.
An IRE Technical Committee on Elec-
tronic Computers was also formed in 1948,
with an initial roster of 21 members that
included many prominent figures in the
Evidence of the IRE’s
earliest moves into
computing can be
found at the
Convention in 1947.
July–September 2013 9
Although the committee’s original
statement of scope was broad and ambitious,
it identified some key foci: ‘‘The Technical
Committee on Electronic Computers is re-
sponsible for all work relating to digital and
continuous computers. Included are applica-
tions to scientific computing, fire control,
and industrial control problems.’’
suggests, the group’s purview included appli-
cations, but emphasizing areas of particular
relevance for engineers. In 1949 the group
adjusted its scope and structure, especially
to give ‘‘equitable coverage to analog and
also ramped up during this period, including
through compilation of a bibliography.
Papers on analog and digital systems and
components continued to appear in the Pro-
ceedings of the IRE, and the group had a strong
presence at the IRE’s national meeting in
1949, with one panel on analog technology
and a larger symposium on ‘‘recent advances
in the state of the art,’’ especially in the dig-
Responding to broader transformations in
the landscape of electrical engineering, the
IRE also adopted a new professional group
system in the late 1940s. This framework
was intended to allow the Institute’s diverse
membership to cluster more cohesively
around specific technical areas and inter-
The leaders of the IRE were explicit
about the drivers behind this reform, includ-
ing rapid changes in technology. As a 1948
status report explained,
in the past decade or so, and particularly in the
postwar epoch, the amoeba-like multiplication
of applications of radio and electronics has led
to a divergence of fields of interestsso great that
the broadcast engineer has in common with
the computer engineer mainly only the funda-
mental phenomena of the electron tube—and
tained largely through the person of yetanother
specialist, the designer of electron tubes.
This passage offers an evocative portrayal
of proliferating subfields in electrical engi-
neering, each linked to partially unique
domains of technology and expertise. The
phrase ‘‘computer engineer’’ is also signifi-
cant here, representing one of its earliest
appearances in print. And the report went
on to note interest in forming a professional
group in the area of ‘‘electronic com-
The first steps toward this out-
come occurred in 1950 when the IRE’s Los
Angeles section established an Electronic
Computers Professional Group.
tion at the national level soon followed,
with the Professional Group on Electric
Computers (PGEC) formed in 1951.
As suggested earlier, the AIEE’s links to
power engineering and its reliance on re-
gional chapters and small, national technical
committees restricted its involvement in
computing to a core group of individuals
spearheading a limited range of activities.
By contrast, the IRE’s orientation toward
electronics and its membership-based pro-
fessional group structure opened up new
opportunities to expand the organization’s
presence in the computing field. Nonethe-
less, the formation of such a group required
clarification of its scope and identity at a
time when it was unclear what specific roles
engineers could, or should, assume in com-
puting. As the next section suggests, period
events and commentaries suggested two
Competing Visions of Emerging
As noted earlier, the analog-digital divide in
the computing field was particularly salient
for electrical engineers. Yet the digital realm
was characterized by its own growing bifurca-
tion between machines and components ver-
sus mathematics and applications. Evidence
for this trend can be found in early meetings
and symposia, many of which were
attended primarily by individuals with
backgrounds and professional appoint-
ments in engineering, the sciences, and
For instance, the influential Moore School
lectures, held at the University of Pennsylva-
nia in 1946, featured ‘‘two almost indepen-
dent programs ... one program will treat
certain mathematical topics in greater detail,
and the other will be concerned with the engi-
neering design features relating to specific
Harvard’s 1947 Symposium
on Large-Scale Digital Calculating Machinery
followed a similar pattern, with a number of
papers and sessions covering machine design
and construction and many others covering
topics such as numerical methods, computa-
tional techniques, and problem preparation
culating Machinery and Numerical Methods
held at the University of California, Los Ange-
les, in 1948 likewise emphasized engineering
and design dimensions in a series of ‘‘progress
reports’’ from leading centers of computer de-
velopment, while separate sessions dealt with
The Origins and Early History of Computer Engineering in the United States
10 IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
programming, numerical analysis, and ap-
These events hinted at one possible
approach to organizing the nascent digital
computing field, with one partially distinct
and machine design and another concerned
with applications, including mathematical
techniques for computation. Although the
former was a realm where engineers already
had considerable prominence, the latter was
largely populated by scientists, mathemati-
cians, and other non-engineers.
Others imagined more expansive jurisdic-
tional claims for electrical engineers. For ex-
ample, Brainerd’s aforementioned paper had
emphasized the early role of electrical engi-
neers in the computing field. Yet a 1950 trea-
tise by electrical engineer Lofti Zadeh offered
a more radical vision. Now widely known for
his pioneering work on systems theory and
fuzzy logic, Zadeh wrote this paper early in
his career, shortly after finishing his PhD in
electrical engineering at Columbia Univer-
sity. Suggestively titled ‘‘Thinking Machines:
A New Field in Electrical Engineering’’ and
appearing in Columbia Engineering Quarterly,
it was one of the first in-depth reflections
on the relation of electrical engineering and
Situating his remarks against larger ques-
tions about the emergence and capabilities
of ‘‘electronic brains’’ or ‘‘thinking
machines,’’ Zadeh queried, ‘‘[W]hat is the
role played by electrical engineers in the de-
sign of these devices?’’
In response, he
emphasized the role of mathematicians in
the early development of computing devices:
Thinking machines are essentially electricalde-
vices. But, unlike most other electrical devices,
they are the brain children of mathematicians
and not of electrical engineers. Even at the pres-
enttimemostoftheadvancedwork on thinking
machines is being done by mathematicians.
Later in the article Zadeh added, ‘‘It is true
that most of the fundamental principles on
which thinking machines are based, have
been contributed by mathematicians.’’
Although almost certainly overstating the
role of mathematicians, Zadeh’s remarks
were strategic. He went on to emphasize, for
instance, ‘‘the ability of electrical engineers
to supply the techniques that make possible
the storage devices, processors, computors
[sic], decision makers, and other less impor-
tant elements of thinking machines.’’
after noting that interactions with mathema-
ticians had exposed many electrical engi-
neers to key computing topics such as
Boolean algebra and multivalued logic,
Zadeh argued that the dominance of mathe-
maticians in the field ‘‘will last until electri-
cal engineers become more proficient in
those fields of mathematics which form the
theoretical basis for the design of thinking
The strategy implied by Zadeh was clear. If
electrical engineers could hitch their knowl-
edge of electronic components and systems
to more robust mathematical moorings,
they might spearhead the establishment of
an important new branch of engineering fo-
cused on computers and computing. Indeed,
pioneering groups at the University of Penn-
sylvania and MIT were demonstrating how
teams comprised mainly of mathematically
astute engineers could achieve impressive
Although thought provoking, Zadeh’s ex-
position appeared in a publication of limited
influence and was not widely cited. Neverthe-
less, it has a two-fold significance. First, it rep-
resents Zadeh’s first attempt to formulate a
disciplinary agenda for computing in electri-
cal engineering, a vision he would later revisit,
refine, and pursue with vigor.
article raised thorny questions about what
specific dimensions of computing fell within
the jurisdictions of engineering. Subsequent
efforts to clarify the scope of relevant profes-
sional groups and organize technical confer-
ences offered tentative answers to such
questions, while helping to establish the iden-
tity of a new field.
The inaugural Joint
(JCC) is notable because
it was mainly organized
by engineers and
aspects’’ of computers.
July–September 2013 11
Computer Engineering Identities
Recognizing their overlapping interests, in
1950 the AIEE and IRE undertook joint orga-
nization of a conference on ‘‘Electron Tubes
for Computers,’’ which drew an impressive
300 attendees. As Akera explained, the ‘‘en-
thusiasm displayed at this meeting con-
vinced both groups to organize a larger,
regular meeting in the computing field.’’
Others point to Brainerd, the AIEE CCD’s sec-
ond chair, as the first to propose such a con-
The resulting first Joint Computer
Conference (JCC) was held in December of
1951 and dedicated to a ‘‘Review of Elec-
tronic Digital Computers.’’ With ‘‘more
than 900 engineers, scientists, and mathema-
ticians’’ in attendance, it was one of the larg-
est such meetings to date.
The inaugural JCC is particularly notable
because it was mainly organized by engineers
and explicitly emphasized the ‘‘engineering
aspects’’ of computers, including machine
design and construction. As explained in a
foreword to the conference proceedings, the
meeting ‘‘would be of permanent value in
the development of engineering knowledge
of this new field of activity.’’
And in a clos-
ing address, MIT’s Forrester emphasized the
‘‘magnitude of engineering involved’’ in the
building of the early digital computers.
A comparison of the present status of the digital
computer field with any of our older branches
of engineering shows that we are not far
advanced. We are firmly on the threshold of a
new field, but the digital computer work has
reachedno real maturity. ...Wehavefirst mod-
els of a new type of machine. There is no reason
to believe that they are relatively more
advanced than were the first models of automo-
biles, the first aircraft, or the first radio sets.
Forrester’s remarks implied that the tech-
nology of computing fell squarely within
the jurisdiction of engineering, and his refer-
ence to other technologies bolstered his ar-
gument. Although Forrester alluded to the
emergence of the ‘‘digital computer field,’’
the conference record more explicitly
named it. As one advance announcement
explained, the meeting was ‘‘held specifi-
cally to review accomplishments in the rela-
tively new field of large-scale digital
Echoing a similar
refrain, a keynote address by Bell Labs engi-
neer W.H. MacWilliams implied that ‘‘com-
puter engineers’’ were the event’s main
If the conference was ostensibly dedicated
to ‘‘computer engineering,’’ the program
hinted at the field’s scope. With an overarch-
ing emphasis on ‘‘the characteristics and per-
formance of working, large-scale electronic
digital computers,’’ a large majority of the
published papers and discussion focused on
individual machines, including perform-
ance characteristics, reliability, and other
engineering and design issues.
presentation dealt more narrowly with com-
ponents, and applications, programming,
and analog computers garnered limited at-
tention. One notable exception was a paper
on the use of analog and digital computing
devices to solve aircraft engineering prob-
lems, which the conference proceedings
explicitly framed as giving ‘‘the members of
the conference a better understanding of
the ultimate usefulness of their efforts.’’
Although applications received a short
shrift on the official schedule, a series of in-
formal sessions were hastily convened to
Interested attendees met to address
topics such as computer operating proce-
dures, the outlook for universal machine
operating codes (or instruction sets), and
methods for locating and preventing pro-
Among these topics, ref-
erence to discussion of operating codes and
instruction sets is especially notable because
it reveals a key point of potential contesta-
tion between computer designers and
programmers. Still, only 18 individuals
attended, and there was an ‘‘absence of
mathematicians and programmers.’’
gatherings—and discussion of applications
and programming more generally—were
clearly footnotes to a ‘‘computer engineer-
After the first JCC, the terms ‘‘computer
engineer’’ and ‘‘computer engineering’’ sur-
faced with increasing regularity, including
in a 1953 special issue of the Proceedings of
the IRE. In an opening article, IBM engineer
Werner Buchholz explained that the special
issue was intended ‘‘[t]o provide a set of stim-
ulating and informative articles which would
introduce the non-specialist reader to the
new and exciting field of electronic computer
He went on to emphasize
that ‘‘[t]he design of a successful computer
demands a high degree of engineering
The issue’s editors also described
‘‘the growth of Electronic Computers as a
branch of the radio engineering field,’’
and another paper introduced readers to
The Origins and Early History of Computer Engineering in the United States
12 IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
‘‘the ‘lingo’ of the computer engineer.’’
addition to reflecting the rising importance
of computing in electrical engineering,
these passages suggested that a new profes-
sional identity was starting to congeal.
If the first JCC and 1953 special issue
hinted at the anticipated purview of com-
puter engineering, early issues of the IRE’s
Transactions of the Professional Group on Elec-
tronic Computers helped clarify its contours.
Launched in 1952, a forward in the first
issue stated, ‘‘It is hoped that this issue will
be the start of a major publication in the
field of digital and analog computer engineer-
And in a second issue, the editors
added that the PGEC’s membership was
expected to be principally interested in ‘‘hard-
ware,’’ adding that papers about the ‘‘physical
components of which computers are made
... are the backbone of an engineering jour-
These passages provided a succinct
definition for ‘‘hardware’’ in the context of
computing, linked the term to computer
engineering, and promoted the transactions
as the field’s journal and PGEC as its profes-
In fact, by 1954 the PGEC’s
2,500 members made it the largest profes-
sional group in the IRE and the largest com-
puting-oriented professional group in the
country, outpacing even the more applica-
tion-oriented Association for Computing Ma-
In short order, the PGEC
had become the de facto representative of
America’s computer engineers, who had pri-
marily embraced machines and components
as their main concerns.
In the 1940s, terms such as ‘‘electronics
engineer’’ and ‘‘circuit designer’’ were often
used in reference to engineers who worked
on computer systems and components.
‘‘Computer designer’’ and other similar labels
also surfaced early on, reflecting images of
engineering work linked to the theory and
practice of design. Yet ‘‘computer engineer-
ing’’ had much in common with other appel-
lations referencing specific domains of
technology, including ‘‘radio engineering,’’
‘‘broadcast engineering,’’ and ‘‘power engi-
neering.’’ Such titles allowed engineers to
swiftly claim jurisdiction over large swaths
of technology and technical expertise, and
use of the ‘‘engineering’’ moniker implied
suitable disciplinary and professional stature
and infrastructures. The identity of the com-
puter engineer also proved appealing on the
front lines of engineering practice, including
in a handful of companies where the roles
and responsibilities of the first computer
designers qua engineers were being defined
Employing Computer Engineers
In parallel with the growing recognition of
computer design and engineering as a dis-
tinct area of professional activity, computer
development moved from universities to
the private sector. As has been well docu-
mented, many companies entered the field
in the 1950s.
In fact, individuals from com-
panies rather than universities dominated
the organizing committee of the first JCC.
This new industry was also where the iden-
tity of the computer engineer was ever
more solidly linked to preexisting academic
credentials (such as degrees in electrical engi-
neering), specialized expertise, control over
specific work tasks, and differentiation from
other professionals. The case of Engineering
Research Associates (ERA) offers further
insights about the position of engineers in
one pioneering firm. Founded in the mid-
1940s, this Minneapolis-based company’s
early activities included developing elec-
tronic data-processing systems, especially
for the US Navy; it was later well known for
its stored-program computer, the 1101.
The company’s founders and early person-
nel included a roughly even mix of mathema-
ticians, electrical engineers, and physicists.
Yet as the firm grew, engineers increasingly
filled its ranks. Per Arthur Norberg, ‘‘40 per-
cent of the 1943 electrical engineering gradu-
ates of the University of Minnesota ...joined
ERA after the war and a significant number
...of the class of 1951 accepted their first job
Additional details can be gleaned
from a 1952 personnel directory, which
reveals that more than 60 percent of the com-
pany’s ‘‘professional’’ staff held engineering
Furthermore, more than 40 percent
of this same group had at least one degree in
electrical engineering, and between half and
two-thirds of the company’s directors and
vice presidents held electrical engineering
As Engineering Research
Associates (ERA) grew,
filled its ranks.
July–September 2013 13
degrees. Among more than 40 individuals
whose primary role at ERA centered on ‘‘com-
puters,’’ a good majority held EE degrees, with
typical areas of responsibilityincluding circuit
design and development, logical design, com-
ponent development, and system design.
By contrast, the company’s small cadre of
physicists was largely associated with work
on data storage devices and systems. A still
smaller group of mathematicians were main-
ly doing logical design and programming
tasks, while mechanical engineers focused
on the design and construction of machine
cabinets and cooling systems. Lower-ranking
professionals comprised much of the remain-
ing technical staff. For example, numerous
technicians, many without bachelor’s
degrees, were involved with building, testing,
and field maintenance of the company’s
Most of the electrical engineers involved
with the company’s computer projects in 1952
had relatively conventional titles such as ‘‘assis-
tant electrical engineer,’’ ‘‘electrical engineer,’’
or‘‘senior electrical engineer.’’ Yetthe company
also had a ‘‘director of computer development
engineering’’ and, by 1952, was seeking ‘‘digital
computer engineers’’ through employment
ads. As Figure 1 shows, these postings called
for electrical engineers and physicists with ex-
pertise in design and development of circuits
and systems. A 1954 ERA ad more explicitly
called for ‘‘electrical engineers and physicists
to do digital computer engineering.’’
Other period employment ads more gen-
erally demonstrate the growing prevalence
of the term ‘‘computer engineer’’ around
this time. Positions advertised in the AIEE’s
Electrical Engineering include an October
1952 listing for an ‘‘electronic or computer
engineer’’ with a BSEE or ME.
1952, a series of ads from the Gilfillan Corpo-
ration sought ‘‘experienced radar and com-
And in 1954, Cal Tech’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory had openings for
‘‘computer engineers (analog and digital),’’
with emphasis on circuit design, logical de-
sign, transistors, and ‘‘theory of automatic
Such ads suggested that the ideal employ-
ees to undertake computer design and devel-
opment were electrical engineers, albeit with
room for scientists and mathematicians to fill
some specialized positions. Engineers were
easily placed into preexisting occupational
categories and work hierarchies, and their
background and training provided them
with appropriate technical flexibility and
management potential. Their appeal was
likely further enhanced by their image as
pragmatic and predictable professionals
who were ready for work in corporate
The rise of the commercial computer indus-
try in the 1950s was paralleled by a further
disambiguation of the computer engineer’s
Variants such as ‘‘analog com-
puter engineer’’ and ‘‘computing engineer’’
receded, as did use of ‘‘computer engineer’’
to describe engineers who used computers
to solve problems. This period was also
marked by a continued sharpening of
The Origins and Early History of Computer Engineering in the United States
Figure 1. ERA employment advertisement for digital computer engineers.
14 IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
boundaries between computer engineers and
their more application-oriented colleagues,
including programmers and numerical ana-
lysts. In fact, ‘‘computer science’’ and ‘‘soft-
ware’’ emerged as key counterpart terms in
the late 1950s and quickly gained cur-
Contrary to Zadeh’s portrayal of
computing as a domain to be mostly or
even wholly claimed by engineers, it was in-
creasingly clear that design and development
of computer hardware was their main juris-
diction. Furthermore, period texts show
that the field of computer engineering was
primarily coalescing around the triumvirate
of circuit, logical, and system design.
The implications of these budding divi-
sions of labor were not lost on commenta-
tors. For example, a 1953 paper by Grace
Murray Hopper, coauthored with ENIAC
codesigner John Mauchly, described how de-
sign engineers were mainly concerned with
circuits and ‘‘hardware,’’ while programmers
‘‘discover new ways of adapting the com-
puter to particular applications.’’
turn argued that computer designers should
be more aware of the concerns and tech-
niques of programmers. ‘‘Certainly the
programmer must help the engineer in eval-
uating proposed engineering plans,’’ they
stated, adding that ‘‘he [sic] can often suggest
possibilities for the engineer to consider.
Sometimes a relatively minor design modifi-
cation can result in savings in program-
Such remarks reveal how rapidly
the divide between computer engineers and
programmers had formed and deepened, de-
spite acknowledgment during this period
that it was entirely possible to ‘‘replace hard-
ware by programs.’’
These comments also
suggested growing recognition that one po-
tential consequence of this gulf was poorly
Through the 1950s, the field of computer
engineering increasingly looked like a heteroge-
neous ensemble that was largely stable in the
midst of rapid technological change. This en-
semble was characterized by a deepened align-
ment of the field’s identity, core domains of
technology, jurisdictions of work, professional
societies, and relations with other fieldsand pro-
fessionals. Nonetheless, the field’s academic
infrastructures remained relatively underdevel-
oped. The first generations of computer engi-
neers were usually trained as electrical
engineers who took few if any courses on com-
puter design and development.
This gap per-
sisted for many years, with accreditation of the
first computer engineering programs in the US
beginning only in the early 1970s.
opment of computer engineering education
therefore represents another key chapter in
this history. Others have started documenting
how the computing fields have emerged differ-
entlyin other countries and regions.
in the US, understanding the lasting vitality and
influence of computer engineering as a distinct
academic discipline and professional specialty
requires looking back to key foundational devel-
opments in the 1940s and 1950s.
This work was supported by a Library Scholars
Grant from Purdue University Libraries. Ap-
preciation is also extended to staff at the
Charles Babbage Institute for archival re-
search assistance and to the reviewers of this
article for their many helpful suggestions.
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July–September 2013 17
Profession, Case Western Reserve Univ. Press,
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Computing, vol. 12, no. 2, 1990,
Brent K. Jesiek is an assis-
tant professor in the Schools
of Engineering Education and
Electrical and Computer Engi-
neering at Purdue University.
He leverages expertise from
engineering, computing, and
the social sciences to advance
understanding of geographic, disciplinary, and his-
torical variations in engineering education and
professional practice. Jesiek has a PhD in science
and technology studies from Virginia Tech. Con-
tact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Origins and Early History of Computer Engineering in the United States
18 IEEE Annals of the History of Computing