It’s been said many times that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. It’s not exactly clear that this is true of computing but a little bit of context never heard anyone. Plus, let’s face it, knowing a thing or two about history makes you seem smart.
So, without further justification or caveats, here are some highly recommended books about the history of computing.
Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Soul of a New Machine is approaching 40 years old at this point, but it’s still a great read filled with things many of us deal with each week at work: big personalities, high consequence product decisions, entrenched incumbents, and corporate politics. The book is about Data General and their 32-bit “Project Eagle,” a mini-computer developed by a small team in the late 70s. Mini-computer, hand drawn computer architectures, and pocket-protector clad engineers with hand calculators might seem like quaint concepts in 2019 but the book is still quiet gripping.
Why it matters: Competitive dynamics, deeply entrenched players, and rapidly changing technology have been key factors in the technology industry for as long as it’s been an industry. To the extent that we can learn from the past, we should try to do so. Even accepting that these are realities of our working like, if not necessarily constraints, can lead to a happier, more productive career.
Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer is a large book detailing all the small companies and big personalities that went into creating the the personal computer in California. The book lays the groundwork for what would become the PC revolution, from Apple to Microsoft to DEC to MITS, this is deeper history than most of us need, but it’s deeply interesting as well.
Why it matters: Soul of a New Machine details one company quite deeply but the personal computer (and now the internet) is a web of a huge number of companies. Understanding how one small firm can rise above the rest and how a small decision can lead to an empire (whether purposefully done or completely by accident) is the power of this book.
This is the story of the Stuxnet computer worm, the one that destroyed countless Iranian nuclear centrifuges. It might have seemed like just another computer virus when it was in the news, but this is one of of the most brilliant software programs ever written. Countdown to Zero Day, Kim Zetter’s retelling of the Stuxnet story, seems incredibly informed and reads more like an action movie script than it does computer history, but it remains about important document showing us how computers went from toys to tools to power centers.
Why it matters: Industrial espionage and hardware-destroying computer software might not be part of your day-to-day, but when’s the last time you were in awe at something a computer could do? Being occasionally reminded of the awesome power of the software you are using (or creating) as well as the real-world implications of the software we write is never a bad thing.
It’s hard to underestimate just how important Bell Labs was to the history of computers. The Idea Factory tells this story in a way that is much less dry, and much more relatable, than I would have expected. What might seem like a dusty old telephone company was one of the world’s greatest centers of innovation and a workplace for some of the top minds of the 20th century.
Charles Petzold’s Code is a classic computer science book that speaks with authority without being a textbook.
It’s hard to believe that any history of the internet could be written in 1998, but Where Wizards Stay Up Late still has excellent staying power and lots of insights about the internet’s early days.
Once you know the name you will find that James Gleick’s The Information is a book that is cited with an incredible degree of regularity. This is a book about the history of information, from clay tablets to hard drives, not specifically a book about computers, but the two topics are certainly intertwined enough that it’s a worthwhile read. Even if you aren’t interested in deep background the book is worthwhile on its own merits, even if only so you can be one of the people who references it who has actually read it.
Sal April 12th, 2019
Posted In: Leisure