Computing in the Middle Ages by Severo Ornstein: a review

This was definitely not the book I expected, but is well worth reading. Ornstein has things to say, and knows how to say them.

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.

So there’s little new here, but there’s a level of detail about specific efforts, and about the personnel involved, that the journalists and historians who’ve tackled the topics lack. There’s also a quite-deliberate recasting of the context, which is Ornstein’s excuse for writing the book; he thinks the more formal histories impose more design (or perhaps a destiny) on the efforts than was actually there. Interesting stuff, with wry humor.

The chapters have odd, amusingly victorian, titles. For instance, Chapter 5: “A piano enters the lab and comes up against TX-2. DEC is formed and there is an error on Page 217. Fourier is proven sound and we land on an aircraft carrier.” The book might be worth reading just for those.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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