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Roger Clarke's 'History Method for ICT/IS'

Notes on the Writing of Histories of ICT and IS

Version of 1 December 2011

Roger Clarke **

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1. Introduction

The electronic computer is 70 years old. The disciplines of computer science (CS) and information systems (IS) have been in existence for 45 years. Packet-switched networks (of which the Internet is an important example) have been working for more than 40 years. And consumer computing began 35 years ago. So, from time to time, people write retrospectively about information and computing technologies (ICT) and their applications and impacts.

Reminiscences have their place; but it's of much greater value to posterity if retrospectives are researched and written with some care. These Notes bring together some ideas about research method and presentation method, drawing on both 'meta- historians' and other people's endeavours to identify appropriate methods to use when chronicling ICT/IS stories.

The Notes commence with a brief review of methods in the discpline of history, followed by some insights offered in the limited history literature within the computing-related disciplines. The final section outlines key aspects of the approach adopted by the author in his several retrospective papers.

2. Historians' Methods

All presentations of history are inevitably constrained by the sources of information available to the researcher. They also inevitably reflect the researcher's world-view. What do professional historians do to cope with these challenges?

A significant difference needs to be acknowledged between the norms among historians and those of social scientists and business academics. In the social sciences, the expectation is that research will be theory-driven, and designed to test, refine or extend that theory. In a historical work, on the other hand, the logic of presentation is quite different, in that theory is expected to emerge from the evidence rather than being imposed at the outset.

As with any discipline, there are multiple schools of thought on appropriate methods in historical research, a topic that is often referred to as historiography. These include a school that says (more or less) that 'history method is bunk'. These Notes have drawn on a range of sources, such as Garraghan (1946), Gottschalk (1950) and Schafer (1974), and particularly such pre-digested versions of their ideas as Comtois (2005).

A number of principles are discernible:

3. Prior Histories in Computing Fields

Many histories have been written about computers, their design and construction, their programming and programmers. A specialist journal has existed since 1979, called the IEEE Annals of Computing History. Surprisingly, however, the terms 'historiography' and 'research method' are barely found in that journal's 33 Volumes, with Misa (2007) and Geoghegan (2008) the only papers located that offer much of relevance to the specific purpose of these Notes. See also Haigh (2004).

Delve (2008, citing Misa 2007 and Campbell-Kelly 2007), identified several 'communities' active in the history of computing:

  1. [primitive] "'internalist' accounts: firsts, histories of individual computers"
  2. "professional historians of computing: ... considering bigger themes, within the auspices of history of science and technology
  3. integrators, not historians of computing as such, but treating the history of computing as part of the Information Age"
  4. an emergent "hybrid ..., linked with other branches and methods and situated ... within and as a vital part of major historical transformations"

A chronological recitation of events has the advantage of minimising the extent to which the author imposes their perspectives and values on the product. On the other hand, there is a "need to subject chronological knowledge to the practices of selection, analysis, and insight before it can become history" (Delve 2008, p. 90). To deliver value, a narrative needs to be selective in its choice of events, and interpretive of their significance. It is commonly necessary to focus on some theme or themes, and to argue, or at least postulate, causal relationships among events. It is of the nature of histories that all aspects are contestable.

4. An Approach

I've conducted a number of research projects which were wholly or substantially retrospective in nature. On the basis of the above Notes, and the experience gained in those projects, I propose the following as a workable project method for research and publishing on historical topics.


Campbell-Kelly M. (2007) 'The History of the History of Computing' IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 29, 4 (Oct-Dec 2007) 40-51

Comtois M. (2005) 'Spinning Clio: Musings of an independent historian' Summer 2005, at, mirrored here: Part 1, Part 2, Part3, Part 4, and Part 5

Delve J. (2008) 'A Trip down Memory Lane? New Challenges from Other Disciplines' IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 30, 3 (Jul-Sep 2008) 90 - 92

Garraghan G.J. (1946) 'A Guide to Historical Method' Fordham University Press: New York

Geoghegan B.D. (2008) 'Historiographic Conceptualization of Information: A Critical Survey' IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 30, 1 (Jan-Mar 2008) 66-81

Gottschalk L. (1950) 'Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method' Alfred A. Knopf: New York

Haigh T. (2004) 'The History of Computing: And Introduction for the Computer Scientist' Chapter in Akera A. & Aspray W. (eds.) (2004) 'Using History to Teach Computer Science and Related Disciplines' Computing Research Association, 2004, pp. 5-26

Misa T.J. (2007) 'Understanding `How Computing Has Changed the World'' IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 29, 4 (Oct-Dec 2007) 52-63

Shafer R. J. (1974) 'A Guide to Historical Method' The Dorsey Press: Illinois

Retrospective Projects

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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Created: 30 November 2011 - Last Amended: 1 December 2011 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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