Software, Engineering, and Software Engineering

Software, Engineering, and Software Engineering

To define a software we need some historical context. The term software engineering (see Box 1, Box 2, and Box 3) was not coined until 1968, 18 years after the mid-point of the twentieth century, and one year before a human walked on the moon.

What was the first software developed? If we use the IEEE Standard 610 definition of software as all of those objects, "that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation," then the first software, per se, was created in 1804. Joseph Marie Jacquard's inspiration of 1804 revolutionized patterned textile waving. For the first time, fabrics with big, fancy designs could be woven automatically by one man working without assistants. Jacquard never obtained a patent for this device. His 1801 patent, issued for an improved draw loom, is often mistaken for the punched card controlled device that bears his name. Working in Lyon, France, Jacquard created his machine by combining two earlier French inventors' ideas: he applied Jean Falcon's chain of punched cards to the cylinder mechanism of Jacques Vaucanson; then he mounted his device on top of a treadle-operated loom. This was the earliest use of punched cards programmed to control a manufacturing process.

Definition of Software Engineering
Definition of Software
Definition of Engineering

Box 4 lays out the historic perspective for computing engines and software.

Software Engineering Historical Timeline

The first widespread introduction of software came in 1890 when Herman Hollerith's 1886 invention of punch-cards was used in the U.S. census. This was also the first cost overrun due to "computers." U.S. census results were tabulated for the first time with significant mechanical aid: the punch-card tabulators of Herman Hollerith (18601929) of MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was the start of the punch-card industry. The cost of the census tabulation was 98% higher than the previous one, in part because of the temptation to use the machines to their fullest and tabulate more data than formerly possible. On the other hand, the tabulation was completed in a much shorter time. Another precedent is that the cards were read electrically. Software has been in use since the beginning of the 19th century. The earliest records of "engineering" have been around since 2550 B.C.

The first engineer known by name and achievement is Imhotep, builder of the Step Pyramid at Saqqarah, Egypt, probably in about 2550 B.C. Imhotep's successors - Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman - carried civil engineering to remarkable heights on the basis of empirical methods aided by arithmetic, geometry, and a smattering of physical science. The Pharos (lighthouse) of Alexandria, Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, the Colosseum in Rome, the Persian and Roman road systems, the Pont du Gard aqueduct in France, and many other large structures, some of which endure to this day, testify to their skill, imagination, and daring. Of many treatises written by them, one in particular survives to provide a picture of engineering education and practice in classical times: Vitruvius' De architectura, published in Rome in the 1st century A.D., a 10-volume work covering building materials, construction methods, hydraulics, measurement, and town planning.


software engineering, punch-card, draw loom, treadle-operated loom
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