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

This was painful to read; I was hoping for something much better.

First we must deal with the title. Despite a subtitle which implies a book about the development of computing, it would be quite as reasonable (and as inaccurate) to describe the contents as an exploration of the birth pains of the Air Force as it transitioned from the Army Air Corps. For the most part the Bright Boys of the title remain shadowy figures working on unspecified problems. In contrast, the principal officers of the emerging Air Force are well drawn, have clear objectives, and argue well-described, sometimes conflicting, opinions.

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.

More problems: The book’s organization makes it difficult to follow the chronology of both the overall narrative and the individual stories the author tells within the larger tale. There’s an enormous amount of redundancy, as Green’s general narrative style is to circle endlessly around his topic. While the author usually writes clearly, occasional paragraphs are absolutely incoherent. And while it’s obvious that Green’s read an enormous amount of material while preparing his manuscript, it’s far less clear that he mastered that reading. Finally, he dismisses the generally-acknowledged contributions of other early computing projects as irrelevant or misguided, excepting only the ENIAC project.

This is a fanboy’s history of the Whirlwind project. Although there’s some valuable information here, I find it impossible to recommend to anyone but a specialist reader.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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