The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder. Modern Library, 1997 (originally 1981).
This is the story of the Data General Eagle, a computer designed to compete with DEC’s VAX. It tells of a special kind of project where people put themselves under a siege to complete a project in less time than it “should” take. This is not a story of “sustainable pace.” This interesting book is mostly focused on the story, but it’s not afraid to dive into some technical detail when that conveys what’s going on.
(Reviewed Oct. 19, 2009)
The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage. Berkley Press, 1998.
A history of the telegraph, from its creation on. The author relates the initial optimism about the telegraph to the similar hype about the Internet – as a tool for bringing about world peace and changing everything. The story ends with Alexander Graham Bell working on a “harmonic telegraph,” which became the telephone. It’s an interesting and well-written story. (Reviewed Sept., ’05)
Computers, Ltd., David Harel. Oxford University Press, 2003.
This is a brief explanation of the limits that computers face: non-computable and intractable problems. At the end of the book, the author spends a little time examining approaches that might get around these problems, and things that work because of these problems (e.g., encryption). (Reviewed June, ’05)
Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, Charles Petzold, Microsoft Press, 2000.
It’s safe to assume you will never be called on to build a computer out of relays. But if you were, this book would give you a chance. Starting from relays, he constructs logic gates, flip-flops, and other devices on his way to creating a real CPU. He has less compelling discussions of numbers, codes, 8080/6800, and programming languages. The book doesn’t give you a broad view of architecture, but that’s not its goal. Rather, its charm is in providing that it’s bits all the way down. (Reviewed Jan., ’04)
Reinventing the Wheel, Jessica Helfand. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
This is a picture book of volvelles, wheel calculators. You typically set a pointer to a particular value, and windows or the edge of the wheel reveal an answer. If you have any interest in job aids, or pre-computer calculators, you will probably enjoy the history and pictures this book contains. (Reviewed Sept., ’03)