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Oxford Dictionaries Online defines embedded in the meaning I'm interested in as:

Definition of embed
verb (embeds, embedding, embedded)
[with object]

  • (often as adjective embedded) design and build (a microprocessor) as an integral part of a system or device:
    it eliminates the need for an embedded controller on the plotter

Etymonline traces the word back to a geological term, but I doubt system engineers reached to geology in coining this meaning, and while nowadays the use is widespread and common, as I think about it, there are other ways to phrase this kind of relationship/property that must have felt just as, or more intuitive — integral, intristic, bound, inherent, ingrained, nested.

I'm interested in origins of this use of this word. Who, when, in what context used it first in this meaning? Any backstory/motivation?

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Since you've got access to OED, I'd start there. I doubt they've gotten to E on the current pass (it started on M), but it's likely to have something of use, and it may have the actual answer. When's is OED's first citation? What's the context. What other uses of embed were at that time already established in engineering? ... That will give you some tentative search terms for stepping the use back on Google Books. – StoneyB Jan 29 '13 at 13:45
@StoneyB: I don't have access to the full OED, just free oxforddictionaries.com – SF. Jan 29 '13 at 14:05
The content of etymonline is most likely from OED. – Mitch Jan 29 '13 at 14:23
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Etymonline itself says "figurative sense is from 1835".

There's a few things to note here. Firstly, in 19th Century Britain, geology was the gentleman's science par excellence; The Geological Society of London rivalled the Royal Society in respect and membership. It was not unheard of for fossil collecting to be done in top hat and tails (okay, that was just one particularly eccentric fellow, but still). Mary Anning had supported her family by selling sea shells on the sea shore.

As such, anyone who wanted to take pride in being intellectually current, wanted to consider himself reasonably knowledgeable on, and to hold informed opinions about, geology. We could compare it to the buzz around web technologies of the 1990s dot-com era.

As such, it's not at all surprising to find a geological term used figuratively, any more than it was to see nightclub posters telling us when and where they would be @ in the 90s.

The other thing is that embed is a simple word of obvious construction. It would be unusual to see someone use a geological term like quaquaversal used in other contexts (though Thomas Pynchon once used it of a beard), but we can see em- + bed and immediately widen it mentally to the figurative use. A figurative use that arguably is really no longer figurative (do you think of geology when you hear it?).

So, on we go through the centuries, or about century and a half, and the Apollo mission is making use of a computer guidance system to hopefully steer people to and from the moon. What to call this configuration?

Integral. Very bad choice, the "integrated circuits" used in it were still a hot new technology in themselves. They already had a meaning for integral and its variants.

Intristic. Invites the question, "As opposed to what?". What we could call the extrinsic parts of a Saturn V that's in space, are those parts in a control room in Texas.

Bound. Maybe. Maybe a bit too wide though.

Inherent, ingrained, nested. All of these make me wonder "what isn't?" given the context.

On the other hand, one novel feature of this computer, was that the integrated circuits, and the wiring between them was physically covered in epoxy in a way that would bring embedded to the mind of anyone looking for the mot juste to describe it physically, since the end of the 1800s.

So, of course they could have called it something else, any naming decision could have gone differently, but that embedded was chosen is pretty reasonable and understandable.

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As for the "what is opposite", it's "standalone". Computers that are not an intristic part of a bigger device but stand on their own as general-purpose devices. But I must agree immersing everything in Epoxy was standard these days and it totally evokes the geological imagery. – SF. Jan 29 '13 at 16:00
My point was more that nothing was standalone on a Saturn V, unless we count those things left on earth as part of the overall system. – Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 16:17
There was a plenty of "external" control devices and computers tasked with driving various systems. Of course using one in context of a space probe would be utterly stupid design decision, but the "as opposed to what" is not really an issue. "Embedded" is not a half of a dual system, it's a design choice vs "remotely controlled". – SF. Jan 29 '13 at 16:33
I think its not being an issue, is what makes it an issue when it comes to thinking of the name; we tend to name by what is remarkable about something and which makes it stand apart from other things. To people working on that project, something being intrinsic to the design wasn't remarkable, when so many other things were intrinsic by one definition or another. – Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 16:37
I think I understand: Nowadays we contrast embedded vs general-purpose, but at the time that wasn't the case; it's the "embedded in epoxy" that evolved into this modern meaning. - Is that what you mean? – SF. Jan 29 '13 at 17:35

Let's refer back to the Oxford Dictionaries Online definition of embed:

1 fix (an object) firmly and deeply in a surrounding mass: he had an operation to remove a nail embedded in his chest

  • implant (an idea or feeling) so that it becomes ingrained within a particular context:
    the Victorian values embedded in Tennyson’s poetry

  • Linguistics place (a phrase or clause) within another clause or sentence:
    (as adjective embedded)
    the embedded sentence has no overt introducer

  • Computing incorporate (a text or code) within the body of a file or document:
    this is the standard way of embedding data in your program

  • (often as adjective embedded) design and build (a microprocessor) as an integral part of a system or device: it eliminates the need for an embedded controller on the plotter

All these examples show a smaller, integral item or part fixed soundly inside a larger item, in much the same way a fossil is embedded in a rock. They don't necessarily all stem directly from the original fossil use, rather it had long since became a general term and was therefore quite a natural choice for computing as well.

There are other computing uses: embedded software runs on things not usually thought of as computers, such as mobile phones and set-top boxes; an embedded system is a special system designed to run as part of a larger computer system.

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