A People's History of Computing in the United States

Joy Lisi Rankin (Author)


Silicon Valley gets all the credit for digital creativity, but this account of the pre-PC world, when computing meant more than using mature consumer technology, challenges that triumphalism.

The invention of the personal computer liberated users from corporate mainframes and brought computing into homes. But throughout the 1960s and 1970s a diverse group of teachers and students working together on academic computing systems conducted many of the activities we now recognize as personal and social computing. Their networks were centered in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Illinois, but they connected far-flung users. Joy Rankin draws on detailed records to explore how users exchanged messages, programmed music and poems, fostered communities, and developed computer games like The Oregon Trail. These unsung pioneers helped shape our digital world, just as much as the inventors, garage hobbyists, and eccentric billionaires of Palo Alto.

By imagining computing as an interactive commons, the early denizens of the digital realm seeded today's debate about whether the internet should be a public utility and laid the groundwork for the concept of net neutrality. Rankin offers a radical precedent for a more democratic digital culture, and new models for the next generation of activists, educators, coders, and makers.

Product Details

Price: $29.95  $26.96
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Published Date: October 08, 2018
Pages: 336
Dimensions: 6.4 X 1.1 X 9.3 inches | 1.45 pounds
Language: English
Type: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780674970977
BISAC Categories:

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About the Author

Joy Lisi Rankin is assistant professor of the history of science and technology at Michigan State University. She served as a consultant for the documentaries The Birth of BASIC and The Queen of Code, and the television show Girls Code. Prior to entering the academy, Rankin had a successful career launching educational programs for students of all ages, which took her around the country. Her website is JoyRankin.com.


Digital computers were brought to us by their inventors, a story frequently told. The digital revolution, in contrast, was brought to us by computer users, and that story--as vividly narrated by Joy Rankin in A People's History of Computing in the United States--deserves to be better known.--George Dyson, author of Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
A fascinating story of personal and social computing long before the advent of personal computers, the internet, and social media. A compelling challenge to the traditional male-dominated narrative of the importance of personal computers and ARPANET in laying the groundwork for today's digital world.--Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College
We're familiar with the story of an American computing culture created by great men--geniuses and mavericks. Very rarely have we heard about exceptional women who made significant contributions to hardware and software development. A People's History of Computing in the United States subverts that old story and takes us into the homes, classrooms, and offices of ordinary Americans--girls and boys, women and men--who built an extraordinary, vibrant digital culture long before the arrival of the PC in the 1980s. The girls (and boys) who code today are the successors to the democratic computing culture that once thrived in this country.--Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code
A powerful and densely detailed account of how digital culture in the 1960s and '70s shaped our contemporary experiences of technology as a tool for social connection...As Rankin's analysis shows, racism and misogyny played a part in molding digital culture from its inception.--The Nation (01/30/2019)
Obviously inspired by Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, Joy Lisi Rankin's book positions itself as a corrective to what she calls 'Silicon Valley mythology.'--Marta Figlerowicz"Public Books" (02/25/2019)
Highly recommended... Rankin's study offers insight into some of the unsung pioneers of personal computing--namely, the teachers and students who were using computers to program poems, build games, exchange messages, and build online communities back in the 1960s to 1970s... A fascinating historical account of early experiments in online learning and edtech.--Cait Etherington"ElearningInside News" (12/23/2018)
If you're interested in computing's present, then this is one of the books you need to read about its past... Kudos to Joy Rankin on this timely, relevant new release.--Marie Hicks, author of Programmed Inequality