upThe NATO Software Engineering Conferences

Dagstuhl-Seminar 9635: "History of Software Engineering" Schloss Dagstuhl, August 26 - 30, 1996

The 1968/69 NATO
Software Engineering Reports



Brian Randell

Department of Computing Science

University of Newcastle upon Tyne

The idea for the first NATO Software Engineering Conference, and in particular that of adopting the then practically unknown term "software engineering" as its (deliberately provocative) title, I believe came originally from Professor Fritz Bauer. Similarly, if my memory serves me correctly, it was he who stressed the importance of providing a report on the conference, and who persuaded Peter Naur and me to be the editors. (I was at the time working at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in the U.S.A., but had got to know "Onkel Fritz" through having been a member of the IFIP Algol Committee for several years.) As a result, it was agreed that Peter and I would stay on for an extra week after the conference in order to edit the draft report, though we arranged to move from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Munich for this second week.

Quoting from our Report of the 1968 Conference [Naur and Randell January 1969]:

"The actual work on the report was a joint undertaking by several people. The large amounts of typing and other office chores, both during the conference and for a period thereafter, were done by Miss Doris Angemeyer, Miss Enid Austin, Miss Petra Dandler, Mrs Dagmar Hanisch and Miss Erika Stief. During the conference notes were taken by Larry Flanigan, Ian Hugo and Manfred Paul. Ian Hugo also operated the tape recorder. The reviewing and sorting of the passages from written contributions and the discussions was done by Larry Flanigan, Bernard Galler, David Gries, Ian Hugo, Peter Naur, Brian Randell and Gerd Sapper. The final write-up was done by Peter Naur and Brian Randell. The preparation of the final typed copy of the report was done by Miss Kirsten Anderson at Regnecentralen, Copenhagen, under the direction of Peter Naur."

As I and other participants have since testified, a tremendously excited and enthusiastic atmosphere developed at the conference. This was as participants came to realize the degree of common concern about what some were even willing to term the "software crisis", and general agreement arose about the importance of trying to convince not just other colleagues, but also policy makers at all levels, of the seriousness of the problems that were being discussed. Thus throughout the conference there was a continued emphasis on how the conference could best be reported. Indeed, by the end of the conference Peter and I had been provided with a detailed proposed structure for the main part of the report. This was based on a logical structuring of the topics covered, rather than closely patterned on the actual way in which the conference's various parallel and plenary sessions had happened to be timetabled.

Peter and I were very pleased to have such guidance on the structuring and general contents of the report, since we both wished to create something that was truly a conference report, rather than a mere personal report on a conference that we happened to have attended. Indeed Peter argued that we should not provide any additional text at all ourselves, but rather produce the main part of the report merely by populating the agreed structure with suitable direct quotations from spoken and written conference contributions. I, however, persuaded him that brief editorial introductions and linking passages would improve the continuity and overall readability of the report. So, (together with the decision that a small selection of the written texts would also be incorporated in full as appendices), we arrived at the final form of the report.

In Munich we worked from the notes taken by the rapporteurs, which we had arranged would be keyed, as they were made, to footage numbers on the recorded tapes. The tapes were not systematically transcribed, since this process typically takes five to six times real time. Rather we used the rapporteurs' notes, and our memories, to locate particularly interesting and apposite sections of the tapes and just these were transcribed. We thus built up a large set of transcribed quotations, which we supplemented with suitable quotations from the written contributions. Then, for each section of the report, one or other of us attempted to turn the relevant set of quotations into a coherent and pseudo-verbatim account of the discussion on that topic, bringing together material from quite separate sessions when appropriate since many topics had been revisited in various parallel and plenary sections.

The work in Munich was as enjoyable as it was intense, and afforded plenty of opportunity for re-hearing some of the more memorable discussions, so that many of these became etched much more deeply into my memory, and had a stronger effect on my subsequent research, than would have been the case had I merely taken part in the conference. The report was virtually complete by the end of the week in Munich, and then Peter Naur took everything back with him to Copenhagen where a complete first draft was produced using a paper tape-controlled typewriter (I assume a flexowriter) - a technique that seemed novel at the time but one that he correctly advised us would greatly aid the preparation of an accurate final text. (My memory tells me that this draft was then circulated to participants for comments and corrections before being printed, but no mention is made of this in the report so I may be wrong.)

The actual printing and distribution was done by NATO, and the Report became available in January 1969, just three months after the conference. Copies were distributed freely on request and it rapidly achieved wide distribution and attention. One of the more delightful reactions to it from amongst the participants was that of Doug McIlroy, who described it as "a triumph of misapplied quotation!". (It was only many years later did I learn from a short article by Mary Shaw that Al Perlis gave out copies of the report to the CMU computer science graduate students with the words "Here, read this. It will change your life." [Shaw 1989] )

Such was the success of the first conference that the organizers sought and obtained NATO sponsorship for a second conference, to be held one year later in Italy. Peter Naur, wisely, was not prepared to repeat his editorial labours, but I - rather rashly - after some initial hesitation agreed to do so, this time in co-operation with John Buxton. As I recall it, the plans for the second conference were discussed at a meeting held in an office at NATO Headquarters. My main memory is that the office was dominated by a very large and impressive safe, which to my amusement was revealed to be completely empty when our host, at the end of the meeting, opened it so as to put away the bottles from which drinks had earlier been served to us. During these preparatory discussions I provided, based on my hard-won experience at Munich, what I proudly considered to be a very well thought-out list of requirements regarding the facilities that we would need to have in Rome. (The most important of these was that the editorial team should have full time access to an Italian-speaker who would help sort out any difficulties that might arise - of this, more later.)

My initial (over)confidence was also in part due to the fact that this second time around, John and I had been offered the full time services of two experienced technical writers from ICL, namely Ian Hugo (who had been closely involved in the preparation of the first report) and Rod Ellis, and we had each arranged to be accompanied to Rome by an expert secretary, Margaret Chamberlain and Ann Laybourn, respectively. Ian, incidentally, went on to help found Infotech, a company that subsequently over a period of years organized a large number of technical conferences, each of which led to the publication of a State-of-the-Art Report, whose format closely matched that of the NATO reports.

In the event the second conference was far less harmonious and successful than the first, and our editorial task turned out to be very different. Quoting from our introduction to the Report of the 1969 Conference [Buxton and Randell April 1970]:

"The Rome conference took on a form rather different from that of the conference in Garmisch and hence the resemblance between this report and its predecessor is somewhat superficial. The role played by the editors has changed and this change deserves explanation. . . . The intent of the organizers of the Rome conference was that it should be devoted to a more detailed study of the technical problems, rather than including also the managerial problems which figured so largely at Garmisch. . . . The resulting conference bore little resemblence [sic] to its predecessor. The sense of urgency in the face of common problems was not so apparent as at Garmisch. Instead, a lack of communication between different sections of the participants became, in the editors' opinions at least, a dominant feature. Eventually the seriousness of this communications gap, and the realization that it was but a reflection of the situation in the real world, caused the gap itself to become a major topic of discussion. . . . . In view of these happenings, it is hardly surprising that the editors received no clear brief from the conference as to the structure and content of the report."

Thus the task of producing a report which was both respectable and reasonably accurate was much more difficult than I could have imagined - and was not aided by all sorts of difficulties that we suffered, almost all of which would have been much more easily dealt with if a local organizer had been provided as agreed. Nevertheless, a number of the participants expressed pleased surprise at our report, when they afterwards received a draft for checking, and evidently thought more highly of it than of the conference that it purported to document.

The conference had been held outside Rome in a rather charmless American-style hotel whose facilities and cuisine I'm sure did little to engender a harmonious atmosphere. It had been agreed beforehand that we would move to a (particular) hotel in Central Rome for the report writing - only during the conference did we discover that no attempt had yet been made to reserve accommodation at this hotel. Needless to say, the hotel turned out to be full, and so last minute arrangements had to be made, and our offices and families alerted to the change of plans.

On the Saturday morning following the conference the six of us, plus all our luggage, and a very impressive set of typewriters, tape-recorders, boxes of paper and other office supplies, etc., were transported by minibus to Central Rome to the very pleasant substitute hotel, which was situated just across from the main entrance to the Roman Forum. In fact we arrived rather too early for the hotel, since only the small suite we were to use as an editorial office was available, our bedrooms not yet having been vacated and cleaned. We thus had to accept the hotel receptionist's suggestion that we all be initially installed in this one suite until our own rooms were ready.

I still treasure the memory of our arrival, which was watched open-mouthed by the various hotel staff and guests in the lobby. This was not just because of our number and our mountain of luggage, and the small army of porters - just one of whom had a door key - that were being employed to move it. It was undoubtedly also due to the interesting appearance the six of us must have made - in particular the fact that Margaret Chamberlain was wearing an extremely short miniskirt. This fashion apparently had yet to spread from London to Rome, where it was still regarded at least by all the Italian men as quite sensational. And Rod Ellis was wearing a splendid long black leather jacket and the sort of thick-soled suede shoes that at that time were known, in Britain at least, as "brothel-creepers". But most memorable of all was John Buxton's remark when the last of the porters had bowed himself out of our suite, and the six of us were standing around our luggage mountain wondering what to do first. He suddenly said, "I've had a great idea. Let's phone down to the front desk and ask for two thousand foot of colour film and a stronger bed, please."

This provided a wonderful start to a week in which we managed to find continual solace in humour despite the pressure of work and the many adversities we had to face. For example, by mid week, almost all of the original typewriters and tape recorders were no longer operational, and we were threatening to abandon Rome and to move to Brussels in order to complete the work at NATO Headquarters. Even the stapler had broken. As Ian Hugo has reminded me, "the suite had a bathroom which was surplus to requirements and the bath became the final resting ground for dead typewriters, tape recorders, etc; by the end of the week it was full to overflowing!" However we soldiered on, though in the end half of the Report had to be bravely typed by Ann Laybourn on a totally-unfamiliar German-keyboard typewriter that we had managed to borrow ourselves from the hotel.

All these adversities - whose impact would have been much less had we had the promised local assistant - in fact helped to bind us together as a team. Rod Ellis' brilliant gift for mimicry also helped by providing many welcome moments of general hilarity as, suiting his choice to the topic at hand, he switched effortlessly in conversations with us between the voices of Edsger Dijkstra, Fritz Bauer, and many of the other participants whose conference comments had been captured for posterity by our tape recorders.

We did in fact finish the report by early on the Friday evening - in good time for a final celebration dinner, once Rod and Ian had returned from the University of Rome where they had made copies of the draft report (and, rather fittingly, broken the photocopier). It was in keeping with the rest of the week, though, that nearly all the restaurant waiters in Rome chose that moment to go on strike - indeed, we saw a large procession of them march right past our windows shouting and waving banners - so that we had to content ourselves with an in fact excellent dinner in the hotel.

Something I had completely forgotten until I reread the introduction to the 1969 Report while preparing this brief account was that this second report was typeset at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, to where I had moved from IBM in the interim. In fact some of the world's earliest work on computerized type-setting had been done at Newcastle. Quoting from the report: "The final version of the report was prepared by the Kynock Press, using their computer type-setting system (see Cox, N.S.M and Heath, W.A.: 'The integration of the publishing process with computer manipulated data'. Paper presented to the Seminar on Automated Publishing Systems, 7-13th September 1969, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Computer Typesetting Research Project), the preliminary text processing being done using the Newcastle File Handling system . . ". (However, I perhaps should also mention that this second report took three months longer to produce than its predecessor report.)

Unlike the first conference, at which it was fully accepted that the term software engineering expressed a need rather than a reality, in Rome there was already a slight tendency to talk as if the subject already existed. And it became clear during the conference that the organizers had a hidden agenda, namely that of persuading NATO to fund the setting up of an International Software Engineering Institute. However things did not go according to their plan. The discussion sessions which were meant to provide evidence of strong and extensive support for this proposal were instead marked by considerable scepticism, and led one of the participants, Tom Simpson of IBM, to write a splendid short satire on "Masterpiece Engineering".

John and I later decided that Tom Simpson's text would provide an appropriate, albeit somewhat irreverent, set of concluding remarks to the main part of the report. However we were in the event "persuaded" by the conference organizers to excise this text from the report. This was, I am sure, solely because of its sarcastic references to a "Masterpiece Engineering Institute". I have always regretted that we gave in to the pressure and allowed our report to be censored in such a fashion. So, by way of atonement, I attach a copy of the text as an Appendix to this short set of reminiscences.

It was little surprise to any of the participants in the Rome conference that no attempt was made to continue the NATO conference series, but the software engineering bandwagon began to roll as many people started to use the term to describe their work, to my mind often with very little justification. Reacting to this situation, I made a particular point for many years of refusing to use the term or to be associated with any event which used it. Indeed it was not until some ten years later that I relented, by accepting an invitation to be one of the invited speakers at the International Software Engineering Conference in Munich in 1979. The other invited speakers were Barry Boehm, Wlad Turski and Edsger Dijkstra. I was asked to talk about software engineering as it was in 1968, Barry about the present state, Wlad about the future of software engineering, and Edsger about how it should develop. I had great fun in preparing my paper [Randell 1979] since I included numerous implied challenges to Barry, whose talk was scheduled immediately after mine, to justify claims about progress since 1968. He studiously ignored all these challenges, or perhaps failed to recognize them, I'm sorry to say.

In my 1979 attempt at describing the 1968/9 scene I did not feel it appropriate to dwell on my experiences in helping to edit the two NATO Reports - so I am very pleased to have had cause to complete my personal software engineering reminiscences, so-to-speak. I thank the organizers of this conference for giving me this opportunity and, in particular, a belated means for me to publish the text that was so sadly censored from the Report of the 1969 Conference.


1. J.N. Buxton and B. Randell, (Ed.). Software Engineering Techniques: Report on a Conference sponsored by the NATO Science Committee, Rome, Italy, 27th to 31st October 1969, Brussels, Scientific Affairs Division, NATO, April 1970, 164 p.

2. P. Naur and B. Randell, (Ed.). Software Engineering: Report on a Conference sponsored by the NATO Science Committee, Garmisch, Germany, 7th to 11th October 1968, Brussels, Scientific Affairs Division, NATO, January 1969, 231 p.

3. B. Randell. "Software Engineering in 1968," in Proc. of the 4th Int. Conf. on Software Engineering, pp. 1-10, Munich, 1979.

4. M. Shaw. "Remembrances of a Graduate Student (for panel, "A Twenty Year Retrospective of the NATO Software Engineering Conferences")," in Proc. 11th Int. Conf. on Software Engineering, vol. 11, pp. 99-100, 1989. (Reprinted in Annals of the History of Computing, Anecdotes Department, 11, 2, 1989, pp.141-143.)


Masterpiece Engineering

T. H. Simpson

IBM Corporation,

Wheaton, Maryland

You may be interested in an experience I had last night while I was trying to prepare some remarks for this address. I was walking outside in the garden attempting to organize my thoughts when I stumbled over a stone in the ground. To my surprise as I picked myself up I saw that it had an inscription chiselled into it. With some difficulty I deciphered it; it began

"Here on this spot in the year 1500 an International Conference was held".

It seems that a group of people had gotten together to discuss the problems posed by the numbers of art masterpieces being fabricated throughout the world; at that time it was a very flourishing industry. They thought it would be appropriate to find out if this process could be "scientificized" so they held the "International Working Conference on Masterpiece Engineering" to discuss the problem.

As I continued walking round the garden, now looking a little closer at the ground, I came across the bones of a group, still in session, attempting to write down the criteria for the design of the "Mona Lisa". The sight reminded me strangely of our group working on the criteria for the design of an operating system.

Apparently the Conference decided that it should establish an Institute to work in more detail on production problems in the masterpiece field. So they went out into the streets of Rome and solicited a few chariot drivers, gladiators and others and put them through a five week (half-day) masterpiece creation course; then they were all put into a large room and asked to begin creating.

They soon realized that they weren't getting much efficiency out of the Institute, so they set about equipping the masterpiece workers with some more efficient tools to help them create masterpieces. They invented power-driven chisels, automatic paint tube squeezers and so on but all this merely produced a loud outcry from the educators: "All these techniques will give the painters sloppy characteristics", they said.

Production was still not reaching satisfactory levels so they extended the range of masterpiece support techniques with some further steps. One idea was to take a single canvas and pass it rapidly from painter to painter. While one was applying the brush the others had time to think.

The next natural step to take was, of course, to double the number of painters but before taking it they adopted a most interesting device. They decided to carry out some proper measurement of productivity. Two weeks at the Institute were spent in counting the number of brush strokes per day produced by one group of painters, and this criterion was then promptly applied in assessing the value to the enterprise of the rest. If a painter failed to turn in his twenty brush strokes per day he was clearly under-productive.

Regrettably none of these advances in knowledge seemed to have any real impact on masterpiece production and so, at length, the group decided that the basic difficulty was clearly a management problem. One of the brighter students (by the name of L. da Vinci) was instantly promoted to manager of the project, putting him in charge of procuring paints, canvases and brushes for the rest of the organisation.

Well, for all I know, the Institute may still be in existence. I leave you with one thought: in a few hundred years, somebody may unearth our tape recordings on this spot and find us equally ridiculous.

Photographs from the Report Editing

Munich, 1968

        Unidentified 1                 Unidentified 3                 Unidentified 4        
Doris Angemeyer
Ian Hugo
Peter Naur
        Unidentified 2                 Unidentified 4        
Enid Austin
Brian Randell

Rome, 1969

        Unidentified 5                 Unidentified 5        
Roman Forum
Forum Hotel

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Last updated 29 Jan 2019 - Brian Randell