Books and dissertations

Parolini, Giuditta (2015) Mario Tchou: Ricerca e Sviluppo per l’elettronica Olivetti. Milano: Egea. 

Parolini, Giuditta (2013) “Making Sense of Figures”: Statistics, Computing and Information Technologies in Agriculture and Biology in Britain, 1920s-1960s. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Bologna. Summary: Throughout the twentieth century statistical methods have increasingly become part of experimental research. In particular, statistics has made quantification processes meaningful in the soft sciences, which had traditionally relied on activities such as collecting and describing diversity rather than timing variation. The thesis explores this change in relation to agriculture and biology, focusing on analysis of variance and experimental design, the statistical methods developed by the mathematician and geneticist Ronald Aylmer Fisher during the 1920s. The role that Fisher’s methods acquired as tools of scientific research, side by side with the laboratory equipment and the field practices adopted by research workers, is here investigated bottom-up, beginning with the computing instruments and the information technologies that were the tools of the trade for statisticians. Four case studies show under several perspectives the interaction of statistics, computing and information technologies, giving on the one hand an overview of the main tools – mechanical calculators, statistical tables, punched and index cards, standardised forms, digital computers – adopted in the period, and on the other pointing out how these tools complemented each other and were instrumental for the development and dissemination of analysis of variance and experimental design. The period considered is the half-century from the early 1920s to the late 1960s, the institutions investigated are Rothamsted Experimental Station and the Galton Laboratory, and the statisticians examined are Ronald Fisher and Frank Yates.

Book chapters

Parolini, Giuditta (2015) From Computing Girls to Data Processors: Women Assistants in the Rothamsted Statistics Department. Contribution for the book Women, Gender and ICT in Europe (Springer International Publishing), edited by Valérie Schafer and Benjamin Thierry. Abstract: Over two hundred women worked as computing assistants in the Rothamsted statistics department during the twentieth century. They were employed in the analysis of field and laboratory experiments and in the examination of the returns of agricultural surveys. Before World War II they did calculations with pen, paper, slide rules and electromechanical calculating machines, but during the 1950s, when the department underwent an early process of computerization, their tasks shifted to data processing. Only sparse records exist on the work of these women, and their contribution to the activity of the Rothamsted statistics department has never been assessed consigning them to invisibility. Combining the literature currently available on laboratory technicians with the one on human computers and data processors the paper will provide a longue durée perspective (1920s-1990) on the work of the female assistants in the Rothamsted statistics department, addressing two distinct aspects. On the one hand it will examine how the tasks of these women evolved with the computing technologies available in the department. On the other hand the paper will reflect on the invisibility of these assistants, who are never explicitly accounted as contributors to the scientific activity of the Rothamsted statistics department, despite being a conspicuous component of its staff.

Parolini, Giuditta (2008) Olivetti Elea 9003: Between Scientific Research and Computer Business. IFIP International Federation for Information Processing. Vol. 269; History of Computing and Education 3. Edited by John Impagliazzo. Boston: Springer: 37-53. Abstract: About fifty years ago, Elea 9003, the first Italian mainframe fully transistorized, was built in the Olivetti Electronic Research Laboratory. The mainframe was realized with a drain of international expertise and training on-the- job of scientific staff. The head of the Laboratory, Mario Tchou, had a valuable experience in electronics in the U.S. and his collaborators, at first mainly Italian, were chosen for previous experience in pulse modulation methods. Elea 9003 was built with germanium diodes and transistors. They successfully sold the mainframe on the national market, but Olivetti electronic enterprise did not last. After the unexpected deaths of Adriano Olivetti (1960) and Mario Tchou (1961) there were inner contrasts in the management. Moreover, the national market was very limited and the Italian government did not help in any way the company. Therefore, in 1964 due to financial problems and shortsighted business strategies, Olivetti dismissed its main electronic assets and sold the Electronic Department to General Electric. However, the seeds of the work done by Olivetti Laboratory sprouted later on in computer science thanks to Programma 101, the first desktop computer.

Special issues

Parolini, Giuditta (ed.) (2015) Experimentation in Twentieth-Century Agricultural Science, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 37(3).

Journal papers

Parolini, Giuditta (2017) Music Without Musicians… But with Scientists, Technicians, and Computer Companies. Contribution to the Special Issue ‘Alternative Histories of Electroacoustic Music’ (J. Mooney, D. Schampaert and T. Boon eds.), Organised Sound Vol. 22(2): 286-296, Abstract: In the early days of music technologies the collaboration between musicians, scientists, technicians and equipment producers was very close. How did this collaboration develop? Why did scientific, business, and musical agendas converge towards a common goal? Was there a mutual exchange of skills and expertise? To answer these questions this article will consider a case study in early computer music. It will examine the career of the Italian cellist and composer Pietro Grossi (1917–2002), who explored computer music with the support of mainframe manufacturers, industrial R&D, and scientific institutions. During the 1970s, Grossi became an eager programmer and achieved a first-hand experience of computer music, writing several software packages. Grossi was interested in avant-garde music as an opportunity to make ‘music without musicians’. He aimed at a music composed and performed by machines, and eventually, he achieved this result with his music software. However, to accomplish it, Grossi could not be a lonely pioneer; he had to become a member, albeit an atypical one, of the Italian computing community of the time. Grossi’s story, thus, can tell us much about the collaborative efforts stimulated by the use of early computer technologies in sound research, and how these efforts developed at the intersection of science, art and industry.

Parolini, Giuditta (2015) Charting the history of agricultural experiments, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 37(3): 231-241. Abstract: Agricultural experimentation is a world in constant evolution, spanning multiple scientific domains and affecting society at large. Even though the questions underpinning agricultural experiments remain largely the same, the instruments and practices for answering them have changed constantly during the twentieth century with the advent of new disciplines like molecular biology, genomics, statistics, and computing. Charting this evolving reality requires a mapping of the affinities and antinomies at work within the realm of agricultural research, and a consideration of the practices, tools and social and political structures in which agricultural experiments are grounded. Three main questions will be addressed to provide an overview of the complex world of agricultural research investigated by the special issue: What is an agricultural experiment? Who is an experimenter in agriculture? Where do agricultural experiments take place? It will become apparent that agricultural experiments have a wide relevance for human development as they touch upon concerns related to human health and nutrition, contribute to policy discussions, and can affect the social and political structures in which farming is embedded.

Parolini, Giuditta (2015) In pursuit of a science of agriculture: the role of statistics in field experiments, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 37(3): 261-281. Abstract: Since the beginning of the twentieth century statistics has reshaped the experimental cultures of agricultural research taking part in the subtle dialectic between the epistemic and the material that is proper to experimental systems. This transformation has become especially relevant in field trials and the paper will examine the British agricultural institution, Rothamsted Experimental Station, where statistical methods nowadays popular in the planning and analysis of field experiments were developed in the 1920s. At Rothamsted statistics promoted randomisation over systematic arrangements, factorisation over one-question trials, and emphasised the importance of the experimental error in assessing field trials. These changes in methodology transformed also the material culture of agricultural science, and a new body, the Field Plots Committee, was created to manage the field research of the agricultural institution. Although successful, the vision of field experimentation proposed by the Rothamsted statisticians was not unproblematic. Experimental scientists closely linked to the farming community questioned it in favour of a field research that could be more easily understood by farmers. The clash between the two agendas reveals how the role attributed to statistics in field experimentation defined different pursuits of agricultural research, alternately conceived of as a scientists’ science or as a farmers’ science.

Parolini, Giuditta (2014) The emergence of modern statistics in agricultural science: analysis of variance, experimental design and the reshaping of research at Rothamsted Experimental Station, 1919-1933, Journal of the History of Biology, DOI: 10.1007/s10739-014-9394-z. Printed in 2015 in Vol. 48(2): 301-335. Abstract: During the twentieth century statistical methods have transformed research in the experimental and social sciences. Qualitative evidence has largely been replaced by quantitative results and the tools of statistical inference have helped foster a new ideal of objectivity in scientific knowledge. The paper will investigate this transformation by considering the genesis of analysis of variance and experimental design, statistical methods nowadays taught in every elementary course of statistics for the experimental and social sciences. These methods were developed by the mathematician and geneticist R. A. Fisher during the 1920s, while he was working at Rothamsted Experimental Station, where agricultural research was in turn reshaped by Fisher’s methods. Analysis of variance and experimental design required new practices and instruments in field and laboratory research, and imposed a redistribution of expertise among statisticians, experimental scientists and the farm staff. On the other hand the use of statistical methods in agricultural science called for a systematization of information management and made computing an activity integral to the experimental research done at Rothamsted, permanently integrating the statisticians’ tools and expertise into the station research programme. Fisher’s statistical methods did not remain confined within agricultural research and by the end of the 1950s they had come to stay in psychology, sociology, education, chemistry, medicine, engineering, economics, quality control, just to mention a few of the disciplines which adopted them.

Book reviews

Parolini, Giuditta (2016) Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland (eds.), New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 38:21.

Parolini, Giuditta (2015) Review of Hallam Stevens, Life Out of Sequence: A Data-Driven History of Bioinformatics, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 37, No. 1.

Parolini, Giuditta (2014) Review of Charles N. Yood, Hybrid Zone: Computers and Science at Argonne National Laboratory 1946-1992, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 36, No. 3: 91-92.

Parolini, Giuditta (2013) Review of Paul Ceruzzi, Computing: A Concise History, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 35, No. 4: 87-88.


Parolini, Giuditta (2016) Editor (with T. Morel and C. Pastorino), The Making of Useful Knowledge, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) Preprint Series, No. 481. Since its development in economic history, the notion of ‘Useful Knowledge’ has found wide resonance in very diverse fields, engaging scholars working on codified knowledge and scientific practices, material culture and technological innovation, experimentation and policy issues. Abstract: This preprint presents some of the contributions on this theme delivered at the workshop ‘The Making of Useful Knowledge’ (MPIWG Berlin, 30–31 October 2014). The meeting aimed at problematizing the apparently coherent picture of useful knowledge that has arisen out of the works of economic historians like Joel Mokyr, and at testing and evaluating the employment of notions of usefulness in the longue durée, moving away from a specific focus on pre-industrial economic growth. Because of this diachronic approach, case studies spanned from the early modern period to the twentieth century. This volume collects an introduction and six essays by Karel Davids, Jonathan Harwood, Ursula Klein, Thomas Morel, Giuditta Parolini and Cesare Pastorino. Topics of these contributions range from commercial accounting, plant breeding and maritime technology, to mining, mineralogy and applied statistics. The workshop ‘The Making of Useful Knowledge’ was organized by Thomas Morel, Giuditta Parolini and Cesare Pastorino as part of the activities of the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge.

Parolini, Giuditta (2016) “Farming, meteorology and field experiments: using statistics to improve agricultural practices”. The Making of Useful Knowledge, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) Preprint Series, No. 481.


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