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The Origins of The Term "Software" Within the Context of Computing (1956 – January 1958)

The first published use of the term "software" in a computing context is often credited to American statistician John W. Tukey, who published the term in "The Teaching of Concrete Mathematics," American Mathematical Monthly, January 9, 1958. 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" (http://www.maa.org/mathland/mathtrek_7_31_00.html, accessed 02-02-2010).

Note that Tukey referred to computers as "calculators." Up to this time the word "computer" typically referred to people, and the use of the word computer for a machine was just coming into popular use.

On April 30, 2013 Paul Niquette informed me that Richard R. Carhart used the term in the  Proceedings of the Second National Symposium on Quality Control and Reliability in Electronics: Washington, D.C., January 9-10, 1956

In August 2014 William J. Rapaport of the Department of Computer Science at SUNY Buffalo emailed me the text of the paragraph in which Carhart used the word software. Carhart wrote:

"In short, we need a total systems approach to reliability. There are four aspects of such an approach which have an important bearing on how a reliablity program is shaped. First, the scope of the program should include the entire system. As an example a missile system includes the vehicle and warhead, the auxiliary ground or airborne equipment, the support and test equipment, and the operating personnel. In addition, the interactions between these various elements, hardware and software (people), must be recognized and included as the glue that holds the system together."

From this it is clear that Carhart did not use the term "software" within the specific context of programming, and priority for the term in that context may rest with Tukey. It is, of course, possible – even likely – that others used the word in spoken, rather than printed, context before either Carhart or Tukey. Paul Niquette stated that he used the term as early as 1953.

(This entry was last revised on 08-04-2014.)