The origin of “software engineering”

RecycledEveryone and her sister continues to repeat the canard that the term “software engineering” was coined on the occasion of the eponymous 1968 NATO conference. A mistake repeated in every software engineering textbook remains a mistake. Below is a note I published twenty years ago on the topic in a newsgroup discussion. I found it in an archive here, where you can read the longer exchange of which it was part.

All textbooks on software engineering that I know, and many articles in the field, claim (that is to say, repeat someone else’s claim) that the term “software engineering” itself was coined on the occasion of the Fall 1968 Garmisch-Partenkirchen conference on S.E., organized by the NATO Science Affairs committee. (See [1] for the proceedings, published several years later.)

The very term, it is said, was a challenge to the software community to get its act together and start rationalizing the software production process.

This common wisdom may need to be revised. The August, 1966 issue of Communications of the ACM (Volume 9, number 8) contains an interesting “letter to the ACM membership” by Anthony A. Oettinger, then ACM President. I must confess I don’t know much about the author; he is identified (in the announcement of his election in the June 1966 issue) as Professor of Applied Mathematics and Linguistics, Harvard University, and from his picture looks like a nice fellow. The sentence of interest appears on page 546 at the end of a long paragraph, which I have reproduced below in its entirety because by looking at the full context it appears clearly that Professor Oettinger did not just use two words together by accident, as it were, but knew exactly what he was talking about. Here is the paragraph (italics in original):

“A concern with the science of computing and information processing, while undeniably of the utmost importance and an historic root of our organization [i.e. the ACM – BM] is, alone, too exclusive. While much of what we do is or has its root in not only computer and information science, but also many older and better defined sciences, even more is not at all scientific but of a professional and engineering nature. We must recognize ourselves – not necessarily all of us and not necessarily any one of us all the time – as members of an engineering profession, be it hardware engineering or software engineering, a profession without artificial and irrelevant boundaries like that between ‘scientific’ and ‘business’ applications.”

(The last point would still be worth making today. The end of the second sentence would seem to indicate that the writer viewed engineering as being remote from science, but this would not be accurate; in the paragraph following the one reproduced above, Prof. Oettinger discussed in more detail his view of the close relation between science and engineering.)

The above quotation is clear evidence that the term “software engineering” was used significantly earlier than commonly thought – more than two years before the Garmisch conference.

What I don’t know is whether Prof. Oettinger created the term, or whether it had been in use before. In the latter case, does anyone know of an older reference? Is Prof. Oettinger still around to enlighten us? (For all I know he could be reading this!)

Switching now our theme from the past to the future: does anyone have an idea of when some actual semantics might become attached to the expression “software engineering”? Is 2025 too optimistic?

Reference

[1] J. M. Buxton, P. Naur, B. Randell: Software Engineering Concepts and Techniques (Proceeedings of 1968 NATO Conference on Software Engineering), Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976.

The last sentence’s sarcasm is, by the way, no longer warranted today.

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3 Comments

  1. […] Programming News: The origin of “software engineering” Again and again everyone and his sister repeats the canard that the term “software engineering” was coined on the occasion of the eponymous 1968 NATO conference. A mistake repeated in every software engineering textbook remains a mistake. Below is a note I published twenty years ago on the topic in a newsgroup discussion. I found it in an archive here, where you can find the longer exchange of which it was part. Read full story => BertrandMeyer […]

  2. […] a post titled <The origin of “software engineering”> Bertrand Meyer writes that the term was not coined in 1968 during the famous NATO conference […]

  3. akuhn says:

    Maybe the ngram corpus helps, at least it shows that Software Engineer peak (in print) in 1990, http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=software+engineering%2CSoftware+Engineering&year_start=1900&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

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