I’m fascinated by computer history and love reading computer history books. We live in such a digital heavy world that it’s difficult to imagine life without it. Yet it really is fairly recent. Personal computers only started becoming popular in the 1980s and the internet was only introduced in the 1990s. And it took a whole decade before the internet started resembling what we currently see. If we take the least restrictive definition of a computer we still get that computers have existed for less than a hundred years. That’s a blink of an eye in our history and it’s incredibly rewarding to read about the origin of the industry I’m a part of. Part of me wishes that I was around in the formative years so this is my way of feeling a little bit of that spark and discovery.
Below are some of the books I’ve read that stood out and I recommend to anyone that’s interested in the history of computers and computing.
- The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop. The Dream Machine is a biography of J. C. R Licklider but it’s much more than that. Despite focusing on one person, Licklider had a hand in introducing the computer to the masses and the book does a great job covering the birth of the computer industry and its growth up into the internet era.
- Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik. If there was any time and place I could experience I would pick Xerox PARC in the 1970s and 80s. There was such an incredible amount of talent doing incredible work and the books makes you feel as if you were there.
- The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Similar to the above, this is a tale of Data General, a designer and manufacturer of “mini” computers in the 1970s and 80s, and the work that was involved in building a computer. It’s amazing that modern computers work given how complex they are and it’s even more incredible to read about how computers were actually made 40 years ago.
- The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company by Michael S. Malone. The transistor led to the creation of the microprocessor which reduced the size of the cips, the cost of computers, and in turn led to Moore’s Law, the reason we all have multiple computers. This is more of a business than technology book but is still a worthwhile read given Intel’s impact.
- A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Claude Shannon created information theory and laid the foundation to think about digital information. Before Shannon there was no way to think about digital information and how it could be safely and stored and communicated. Computers are constantly shuffling bits around - whether internally or externally - and without information theory we wouldn’t know where to begin.