Between Discipline and Profession: A History of Persistent Instability in the Field of Computer Engineering, circa 1951-2006


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Virginia Tech


This dissertation uses a historical approach to study the origins and trajectory of computer engineering as a domain of disciplinary and professional activity in the United States context. Expanding on the general question of "what is computer engineering?," this project investigates what counts as computer engineering knowledge and practice, what it means to be a computer engineer, and how these things have varied by time, location, actor, and group. This account also pays close attention to the creation and maintenance of the "sociotechnical" boundaries that have historically separated computer engineering from adjacent fields such as electrical engineering and computer science. In addition to the academic sphere, I look at industry and professional societies as key sites where this field originated and developed. The evidence for my analysis is largely drawn from journal articles, conference proceedings, trade magazines, and curriculum reports, supplemented by other primary and secondary sources.

The body of my account has two major parts. Chapters 2 through 4 examine the pre-history and early history of computer engineering, especially from the 1940s to early 1960s. These chapters document how the field gained a partially distinct professional identity, largely in the context of industry and through professional society activities. Chapters 5 through 7 turn to a historical period running from roughly the mid 1960s to early 1990s. Here I document the establishment and negotiation of a distinct disciplinary identity and partially unique "sociotechnical settlement" for computer engineering. Professional societies and the academic context figure prominently in these chapters. This part of the dissertation also brings into relief a key argument, namely that computer engineering has historically occupied a position of "persistent instability" between the engineering profession, on the one hand, and independent disciplines such as computer science, on the other.

In an Epilogue I review some more recent developments in the educational arena to highlight continued instabilities in the disciplinary landscape of computing, as well as renewed calls for the establishment of a distinct disciplinary and professional identity for the field of computer engineering. I also highlight important countervailing trends by briefly reviewing the history of the software/hardware codesign movement.



discipline, profession, instability, Design, computing, engineering studies, engineering, engineers, Technology, computer, history