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Digital Federalism. The early history of SWITCH and CSCS Manno (1985-1995)



Balbi G.


Bory P.


Lüthi E.


External participants

Gugerli David

(Third-party responsible)


The aim of this exploratory study is to investigate the early history and co-evolution of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS) in Manno, Ticino, and of the Swiss telecommunication system for higher education and research (SWITCH) from 1985 to 1995. We wish to explain the development of national digital infrastructures capable of sharing computing power and accessing information throughout the country, and more precisely, the early history of digital federalism in Switzerland. Specifically, our investigation is driven by three main research questions:

- Q1 - SWITCH began operating in 1989. What were the main reasons for creating this digital network? In what sense did this network constitute a federal project?

- Q2 - CSCS went into operation in 1991. What were the main political, economic, cultural and technical reasons for investing federal funds into vast amounts of highly specialized computing power in Southern Switzerland? How were the politics of digital federalism debated by politicians, technicians, business players and others?

- Q3 - Over the last three decades, digitized communication networks have merged with multiple infrastructures and services to create new structures that support computer-based operations in both the public and private sectors. In what ways did these infrastructures and services co-exist or replace each other? How did that affect the very notion of national infrastructure?

The study represents a research collaboration between the IMeG Institute of Media and Journalism at USI Università della Svizzera italiana and the Chair for the History of Technology at ETH Zurich. Both institutions have well-established traditions in digital history. The research team at USI has published in the area of history of digital media and computer networks with a focus on political economy and imaginary perspectives. The research team at ETHZ has published in the area of computer history and the history of Swiss federal infrastructures and large technological systems. Through historical research on previously unexplored sources and qualitative interviews with relevant key players (such as SWITCH and CSCS workers, political institutions, private companies, and technicians), the research teams will develop an empirical and theoretical analysis of Swiss infrastructure at a crucial historical moment: when sharing data promised benefits for science, education and the economy. We will explore innovative research topics, and discuss new research methods related to the history of digital societies. We will make new historical sources accessible and develop instruments for exploiting the digital corpora of archival material. This study on the early history of SWITCH and CSCS would be a first step toward a historical review of the Swiss national infrastructure in general and a future interdisciplinary collaboration aimed at achieving breakthrough research on digital networks, platforms and emerging innovative structures.

Additional information

Start date
End date
18 Months
Funding sources
External partners
Technikgeschichte Institut für Geschichte ETH Zürich
Swiss National Science Foundation / Digital Lives