Tag Archives: computing history

The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop: a short review

This is a terrific book. The writing is lucid, the research–though predominantly from secondary sources–is excellent. If you plan to read one book about the ARPA computing effort, this should be that book.

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I’m Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards: a short review

This is a better book than I anticipated. Edwards was obviously fascinated by Google’s founders, and the culture of the company they created. We watch as they repeatedly reorganize the leadership structure–an important concern for a middle manager–and as the author learns how he can contribute to the company. It’s an interesting, nitty-gritty view of the office (and its politics) from a privileged seat. This is well worth your time.

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Computing in the Middle Ages by Severo Ornstein: a review

The author was involved in computing from the mid-fifties to the early eighties, and played fairly important roles in the SAGE, TX-2, and Linc projects, all of which are key to understanding how computing developed. He also was heavily involved in BBN’s pioneering Arpanet efforts, and moved on to Xerox PARC in its prime, where he helped design the first laser printer. So he had a first-hand view of the development of electronic computing in the period between the pioneering efforts and the beginnings of microcomputing. This is a different, quite personal, account of what his computing projects were like, and his assessment of the issues as they looked to the participants during the period.

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Electronic Computers by Saul Rosen: a review

This is easily the best short survey of the early history of computing I’ve seen, and is well worth a read. It’s an excellent 30 page survey of electronic computing history through the late 1960s, with most significant projects and companies briefly sketched and their contributions–and failures–described. The essay is organized by technological era (vacuum tube, transistor, early ICs), with each era’s discussion organized by company or project. Some effort is made to put each project into historical and technical context.

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Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik: a review

Hiltzik argues–successfully, I think–that the question oversimplifies the reality, in several dimensions: Xerox did use some of the Palo Alto Research Center creations, Xerox didn’t really have the ability/agility to implement others, and that clashing cultures made some gains difficult. He also explores the strengths and weaknesses of Bob Taylor’s management practices at some length (an interesting thing, actually, as I’m also reading Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late, which also features Taylor as a key player). Finally, he points out, Xerox continued to fund those rebels it supposedly didn’t listen to.

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Bright Boys, the making of information technology by Thomas J Green: a review

The author seems to have no sense of proportion. Assuming he really intended a book about the MIT Whirlwind computer and its developers, he’s presented far too much detail–roughly half the text–about the development of the Air Force. There’s surprisingly little about the personalities of the Whirlwind participants or the details of their technical accomplishment. He’s far too dismissive of the clearly-legitimate concerns of the Navy’s research arm about the costs and objectives of the Whirlwind project. Moreover, much of the material seems misdirected; while he asserts the importance of Whirlwind’s technical mastery as the principal source of nearly all subsequent developments in information technology, he offers little to support that assertion. The result is highly disappointing.

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Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt Beyer: a review

This book is not, in any meaningful sense, a biography of Grace Murray Hopper. There’s a perfunctory sketch of the first 36 years of her (pre-Navy) life, and some mention of mid-life depression and alcoholic binges, but otherwise the book is fully devoted to describing her career in computing, her impact on the industry, and (to some extent) the development of both hardware and software in places outside her immediate purview. For all practical purposes this book ends with the standardization of COBOL; Hopper’s subsequent career is only lightly touched, and her late-in-life celebrity is briefly described in the first chapter but not really discussed.

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Fire in the Valley by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine: a review

The authors–both of whom edited computer publications as the stories developed–tell the story of the beginnings of the PC revolution from the perspective of Silicon Valley. Their version heavily overlaps Stephen Levy’s Hackers, which was published a few months later, but it’s a very different tale in style and substance.

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Hackers by Steven Levy: a review

Steven Levy pretty much framed the way we remember the early personal computing days with this book. This is a collection of stories–three main ones, and a host of smaller tales within the large ones. The main stories cover the MIT hackers of the 60s and 70s, the Bay Area folks revolving around the Homebrew club who perfected the modern personal computer, and Sierra Online’s birth as an important gaming company. The smaller stories are mainly about individuals and events. Over the course of the book the emphasis changes from truly personal hacking to the ways hackers interacted with the development of their obsession into an important industry. This journey into business defines the book.

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