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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

The information age

HSTM20282 (10-credit); HSTM20782 (20-credit)
UCOL20282 (10-credit); UCOL20782 (20-credit)

Semester Two, Thursdays, 16.00-18.00

Contact: Dr James Sumner


How did information-processing equipment come to dominate, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, so many areas of human life? Who are the winners and losers in a computerised, automated, data-driven world? Is “information technology” applied computer science, or applied bureaucracy? This course tries to answer this question by tracing the histories of a range of technological developments, from the mechanical calculating machines of the nineteenth century to the global networked systems of today.

The course is equally suitable for computer science students and those who have never studied the field, but are interested in learning more about the background of one of the dominant technologies of our time.

Intended Learning Outcomes

By the end of this unit, it is expected that a student taking the 10 credit version will

  • have a good working knowledge of major developments in the history of information technology, particularly from the Second World War onwards
  • have developed skills in critical reasoning and analysis, understanding the different motivations of historical characters in the history of information technology, and the differences in the ways they interpret and describe events
  • be able to appreciate, and display the ability to analyse and discuss, the different factors - social, technical, sometimes accidental - which shape the history of computing, and the definition of the computer and its users

In addition, a student taking the 20 credit version will

  • have defined (in consultation with the lecturer) a research project in the history of computing
  • be able to find, and assess critically, relevant primary and secondary sources
  • have produced, with full scholarly apparatus, a report (or alternative piece of work, subject to the lecturer’s approval) based on this research.

Lecture Content

Lectures and seminars are likely to cover the following themes:

  • Charles Babbage and mechanical calculation
  • Managing information before the digital computer
  • Early digital computers and the power of legends
  • Robots in reality and fiction
  • Alan Turing and thinking machines
  • Software
  • The 1980s: computers in the home
  • Women, men and computers
  • Information-age fears
  • Boffins, wizards, hackers and nerds: images of ‘computer people’
  • Living in the information age: identity, privacy and power


10 credit unit (HSTM20282) - 1500 word essay (50%); 2 hour exam (50%)
20 credit unit (HSTM20782) - 1500 word essay (25%); 2 hour exam (25%); extended project of around 3000 words (50%)




Students may ask questions at any time during lectures and seminars. Teaching staff will answer specific queries by email and during office hours, and will provide contact details in the course handbook or at lectures. All submitted coursework will be returned with annotations and an assessment sheet explaining the mark awarded.
In addition, students on the 20-credit version (HSTM20782) will receive comments on the progress of their projects through individual supervision meetings.

Employability Skills

Oral communication - Half the classroom time each week is devoted to seminar discussion based on a reading or research task. All students will be involved in oral discussion.
Written communication - All students write a 1500-word essay in standard humanities form, and receive individual written feedback.
Innovation/Creativity - Throughout the course, students are expected to give their own interpretations of the ideas and narratives presented, through in-class discussion and in their written work.
Research - All assessed work is based on independent source research.
Analytical skills - All work on this course involves the critical examination of source materials (who wrote this, when and why? What was the intended audience? Did it have the intended effect?...)
Problem solving - All essay-writing is a form of problem-solving!
Other - This course has a particularly broad intake from across the University, and provides opportunities to interact with students trained in a wide range of disciplines.

Recommended Reading

  • Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: a history of the information machine, 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview 2004 (required)
  • Eric Swedin and David Ferro, Computers: the life story of a technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2005 (Recommended)
  • Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 2003 (Recommended)
  • Steven Levy, Hackers: heroes of the computer revolution, updated edition. London: Penguin 2001 (Recommended)
  • Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic 2011 (Recommended)

Teaching staff

Dr James Sumner

A recent copy of the course outline is available to view (pdf). Please note that course content may change in the next academic year.