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.

On the other hand the book covers Hopper’s essential achievements extremely well, and is perhaps the best survey of early computing technology (and its associated community) I’ve seen. Like most early-computing books to date, it’s not intended to be a comprehensive survey; within its intended scope, it’s truly excellent.

DO NOT buy this book from MIT Press as an e-book (but see my update below). Their e-book definition is limited to online reading; you log into their website and use their software to read the book. This software isn’t terrible, but it’s quite frustrating: It can’t remember your last-page-read, it doesn’t remember your font settings, and (at least for this user) doesn’t fit well on the computer screen. While it’s possible to annotate the book, and to make highlights in the text, the software seems to prevent copy/paste activities, thus unnecessarily complicating note-taking. And then there’s the preposterous notion that storing books in many web locations is a reasonable way to manage my library. All in all, a bad experience; I rather wish I’d purchased the book in hardcover. But I’ll not do that after investing $20 in the electronic copy, however unsatisfactory I find it.

Update 22dec10: MIT Press, I’ve discovered, also permits offline reading using a client called iOffline, which was built using Adobe Air and more or less duplicates the online reading experience, including most of the limitations mentioned above. I think this is a slight improvement, but I’m still annoyed with the situation.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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