Clarification Relating to First Use of "Software"

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Mon Sep 10 01:18:28 UTC 2012

I meant to type "1958," not "2000," for the date of Tukey's usage of "software."

Fred Shapiro

From: Shapiro, Fred
Sent: Sunday, September 09, 2012 9:15 PM
Cc: jester at
Subject: Clarification Relating to First Use of "Software"

I published an article in 2000 in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, antedating the OED's first use of the word "software" by finding it used by statistician John W. Tukey in 2000.  This discovery received worldwide attention when Tukey died and the New York Times headlined his obituary describing him as the coiner of "software."

Tukey's coinage has not gone unchallenged.  Someone named Paul Niquette has claimed energetically for years that he originated the term, but he has never come up with any kind of documentation of his claim.  The Wikipedia entry for John W. Tukey points to a 1956 usage in Google Books, but whoever wrote about that did not see the book in question.

I have borrowed the 1956 book from the library of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  It turns out that the occurrence of "software" there does not refer to computer programs.  However, the citation may possibly be worthy of inclusion in the OED with square brackets around it, or under a different sense of "software."  Here it is:

1956 _Second National Symposium on Quality Control and Reliability in Electronics_ (Professional Group on Quality Control, Institute of Radio Engineers and the Electronics Technical Committee, American Society for Quality Control) 149  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.

The OED fails to recognize that there was a material-culture sense of "software" that long predated the computer sense.  Here is an early example:

1850 _Sharpe's London Journal_ July 251 (British Periodicals)  At the conclusion of the last war, the old stocks [of porcelain] in the Royal Manufactory of Sevres [accent over first e] were put up to auction, and bought by certain individuals, who also collected all the soft ware they could find in the possession of other persons.

Fred Shapiro

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list