The history of software development is a journey that covers nearly a century, marked by huge shifts in computing technology. It can be argued that there are nine documents that have left an indelible mark on the world of software development. These documents, written by visionaries and innovators, have shaped the very foundations of computer science and software engineering.

Alan Turing’s “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (1936)

Alan Turing’s seminal paper, published in 1936, is often regarded as the birth of computer science. In this work, Turing introduced the concept of the Turing machine, a theoretical construct that laid the groundwork for understanding computation. He demonstrated that any problem that could be algorithmically solved could be computed by a Turing machine. This concept became a base model for computing, serving as the theoretical underpinning for modern computers.

Turing’s visionary ideas provided a theoretical framework for computation and had profound implications for the practical development of computers. His work set the stage for the creation of the first digital computers, marking the beginning of computing technology.

John von Neumann’s “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” (1945)

In 1945, John von Neumann authored a document that would change the field of computer architecture. Titled “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC,” this document outlined the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC) and introduced a brand new concept—the stored-program computer.

Von Neumann’s idea was to design a computer that stored both data and instructions in the same memory, making it possible for a computer to modify its own program while running. This concept formed the foundation of the von Neumann architecture, which is still used in virtually all modern computers. It bridged the gap between theoretical concepts and practical computing, ushering in an era where computers could be programmed to perform a wide range of tasks.

“Specifications for the IBM Mathematical FORmula TRANSlating System, FORTRAN” by John Backus et al. (1954)

1954 saw a significant leap in software development with the creation of the FORTRAN programming language. John Backus and his team at IBM developed this language, which stands for “Formula Translation.” While the specification for FORTRAN was not publicly published, its impact on the world of programming was profound.

FORTRAN was the first high-level programming language, designed to simplify the process of writing code for scientific and engineering calculations. It brought with it the concept of abstraction, allowing programmers to express algorithms in a form closer to human thinking, rather than having to work at the machine code level. This shift in programming languages helped development of numerous other high-level languages and marked a major step toward making software development more accessible and efficient.

Edsger Dijkstra’s “Go To Statement Considered Harmful” (1968)

In 1968, Edsger Dijkstra published a paper that challenged a common practice in programming—the use of the go-to statement. Titled “Go To Statement Considered Harmful,” this document criticized the unstructured use of go-to statements in code and advocated for structured programming practices.

Dijkstra’s argument was that excessive use of go-to statements led to code that was hard to understand, maintain, and debug. He introduced the concept of structured programming, which promoted the use of control structures like loops and conditionals to create more readable and reliable code. Dijkstra’s paper influenced how programmers approached software development, clearly detailing the importance of code quality and structure.

Diffie-Hellman’s “New Directions in Cryptography” (1976)

The year 1976 witnessed a new development in the field of cryptography with the publication of “New Directions in Cryptography” by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. This document spoke of the concept of public-key cryptography, a new approach to secure communication.

Public-key cryptography lets two parties communicate securely over an insecure channel without needing to share a secret key in advance. This innovation laid the foundation for secure digital communication, detailing the security protocols still used today. Diffie and Hellman’s work opened up new areas for secure data exchange, bringing an enormous change to cryptography and changing privacy and security of digital communications.

Richard Stallman’s “The GNU Manifesto” (1985)

In 1985, Richard Stallman penned “The GNU Manifesto,” a document that would catalyze the open-source software movement. Stallman advocated for the development and distribution of free software, showing the importance of user freedom and community collaboration.

The GNU Manifesto was the groundwork for the GNU Project, an ambitious effort to create a free and open-source Unix-like operating system. Stallman’s vision of software as a collaborative endeavor, with users having the freedom to study, modify, and distribute software, has had a lasting impact on the software development community. It inspired the creation of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the GNU General Public License (GPL), which became instrumental in the development of countless open-source projects.

Roy Fielding’s “Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software Architectures” (2000)

Roy Fielding’s 2000 dissertation, titled “Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software Architectures,” introduced the REST architectural style. REST, which stands for Representational State Transfer, has become a standard in the development of web services and APIs.

Fielding’s work emphasized the principles of simplicity, scalability, and statelessness in designing network-based software architectures. RESTful APIs have since become the basis in web development, giving interactions of web applications with servers and databases. Fielding’s contributions have had a huge and lasting impact on the way web services are designed and implemented.

Satoshi Nakamoto’s “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” (2008)

In 2008, an individual or group using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto released a whitepaper has disrupted finance and technology. Titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” this document introduced the concept of a decentralized digital currency and the underlying blockchain technology.

Bitcoin offered a way to conduct financial transactions without the need for intermediaries like banks. It relied on a decentralized ledger, the blockchain, to record and verify transactions. The emergence of Bitcoin sparked the birth of cryptocurrency, leading to the creation of thousands of alternative cryptocurrencies.

“TensorFlow: A System for Large-Scale Machine Learning” by Martin Abadi et al. (2015)

2015 was a milestone in machine learning and artificial intelligence with the release of “TensorFlow: A System for Large-Scale Machine Learning.” This paper, authored by Martin Abadi and his colleagues, introduced TensorFlow, an open-source platform for building and deploying machine learning models.

Its flexibility, scalability, and extensive ecosystem have made it a preferred choice for researchers, data scientists, and engineers. This document advanced machine learning technologies, aiding the development of sophisticated AI applications and contributing to the rapid growth of the field.

Alexander Procter

January 18, 2024

5 Min read