The Roots of Software

Can anyone remember when "software" wasn't on the tongue of every schoolchild? But it had to start somewhere. And Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian and etymologist at Yale Law School, thinks he's gotten to the source.

Shapiro sifted through the billions of words in JSTOR, an electronic journal archive, looking for the earliest use of "software." Lo and behold, he found first mention in a January 1958 article by Princeton statistician John Tukey, co-inventor of the fast Fourier transform, a mathematical technique. In the American Mathematical Monthly, Tukey wrote: "Today the 'software' comprising the carefully planned interpretive routines, compilers, and other aspects of automative programming are at least as important to the modern electronic calculator as its 'hardware' of tubes, transistors, wires, tapes, and the like."

Shapiro, who reported the finding in the April-June IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, thinks JSTOR will revolutionize the study of scientific quotations and terminology. Mark Twain's Autobiography, for instance, which was published in 1924, is typically listed as the source for the quote "lies, damned lies, and statistics." But a JSTOR search reveals the saying in an 1896 statistics journal--in which an even earlier source is quoted. Shapiro predicts that JSTOR will be the source of new revelations as it adds older scientific journals, such as periodicals of the Royal Society of London going back to the 1600s.