Dr. Charlotte P. Lee, professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE), has received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to study the development and impact of the IEEE 754 standard for computer arithmetic. Achieving reliable systems during times of technical upheaval requires coordination among a wide range of stakeholders around technical knowledge, negotiation, and mutual learning. This research will detail the history of how the creation and adoption of a foundational technical standard came about through a complex interplay of technical know-how and collaborative skill.

“Dr. Lee’s work is the history of technology at its best”, said Joshua M. Greenberg, program director at the Sloan Foundation. “The development and adoption of a technical standard for floating point arithmetic was a vitally important moment in the evolution of computing, and one with profound lessons to teach us about innovation and infrastructure. We are thrilled to be able to support her research.”

The Standard, adopted in 1985 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is today taken for granted and is almost unthinkably ubiquitous. It allowed the device you are reading these words with today to seamlessly perform the minute arithmetic needed to render the type on screen. By enabling portability and reliability of floating point arithmetic, the IEEE 754 standard continues to underlie most computing in general, and scientific and engineering computing in particular.

The history of the development of the standard is incomplete, however, focusing primarily on technical minutiae or debates during adoption alone. This research will assemble a holistic view of an ongoing social and technical coordination from a distributed and diverse set of stakeholders which carried on after adoption and resulted in seemingly seamless numerical computation in a short period of time.

Dr. Lee and HCDE PhD student Adam Hyland will conduct archival and documentary research and collect oral histories of mathematicians, engineers, library developers, and programming language designers to track the distributed coordination and collaboration which made reliable numerical computing ubiquitous.

IEEE 754 came about in a world much like ours. New techniques from machine learning were ushering in an explosion of semiconductors, data formats, and even arithmetics to reliably compute increasingly large amounts of data using less power. New uses and users were surging. By studying the first numerical computing revolution, we will be better prepared for the revolutions of today and tomorrow.

Follow the project at coordinating-arithmetic.com.

The ALFRED P. SLOAN FOUNDATION is a not-for-profit, mission-driven grantmaking institution dedicated to improving the welfare of all through the advancement of scientific knowledge. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation, the Foundation makes grants in four broad areas: direct support of research in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics; initiatives to increase the quality, equity, diversity, and inclusiveness of scientific institutions and the science workforce; projects to develop or leverage technology to empower research; and efforts to enhance and deepen public engagement with science and scientists. sloan.org | @SloanFoundation