Dusty Decks: Preserving historic software

Dick Sites; the ‘Tome’

In a response to Software Collection Committee chairman Bernard L. Peuto’s request for suggestions for “10 software preservation candidates for testing our processes”, Dick Sites mentioned:

I once saw and read part of the original handwritten Fortran I documentation in a basement of the Sloan building at MIT in 1965. Backus might know if any copies still exist.

When Software Collection Committee member and museum chairman Len Shustek asked, “Was what you saw source code, user-manual material, or internal design documents?”, Dick replied:

It was a Xerox copy of hand-written internal design documents. It was in the 1620 mod II room in the basement of the Sloan building on the MIT campus, 100 Memorial Drive circa spring 1966. I have always regretted not having the foresight (and money) to make a complete copy back then. As I remember, it described the overall compiler design and optimizing algorithms. I remember a fairly neat but slightly small handwriting with hand-drawn boxes and arrows for some of the algorithms. I don’t remember whose names were on it.

I’m pretty sure it was Fortran I dated circa 1957, but it could have been Fortran II. It was not describing a 1620 compiler; it just happened to be in that room. I’m not sure whether the document mentioned the target computer, but I recognized it as the IBM 704 or perhaps 709. I don’t have a clear memory of how much paper there was, but it was perhaps 50-150 pages.

Len responded:

I think I may have found what it was: In his “History of Fortran I, II, and III” article in the 10/98 issue of “Annals of Computing History”, Backus says of the April 1957 release, “Shortly after the distribution of the system, we distributed — one copy per installation — what was fondly known as the ‘Tome’, the complete symbolic listing of the entire compiler plus other system and diagnostic information, an 11×15 inch volume about four or five inches thick”. Does that sound right?

I suppose it’s impossible still to be in the basement at Sloan? The good news is that as of April 1958 there were 26 installations of Fortran at 704 sites, and if each if them was given a ‘Tome’, then one or more might have survived. Somewhere.

Dick replied:

No, not right. What I saw was HANDWRITTEN. It was not a computer listing. It was not source code. It was not an IBM manual. It was not computer paper. It was not four or five inches thick. It was not an IBM 704 or 709 installation. It was a Xerox copy (not reduced from larger paper) of handwritten documentation on 8.5×11″ white paper, perhaps 1/2″ thick at most.