This is probably the sixth book I’ve read about various aspects of computing history. What compels me to write about it is the impending iPad.
One thought that struck me over and over while reading is, “Do any of these people understand how incredibly lucky they were?” Practically none of them were ever told what to do by someone above them who was stupid and driven by ego — the typical Boss. They were working for smart people who basically said, “Do something smarter than me.” The freedom they had was just breathtaking.
One frustration of the book was narrative time compression, where people were given impossible tasks in one sentence and seemingly got them accomplished a few sentences later. It made me wish I could have jumped into their heads to see their emotional states and witness the thinking that went into their problem-solving. Just look at this as one example:
It fell to Kay to get a version of the Algol programming language running on a Univac mainframe computer. He arrived at his desk to find that someone had placed a magnetic computer tape on it with a note that said, “This is Algol for the 1108. It doesn’t work. Make it work.”
That was his first day on the job!
In this case, some of the thinking that went into solving that problem was shown (for one thing, that tape wasn’t Algol at all!). But in most other cases, seemingly impossible things were dispatched like waving a magic wand. More than once I wished it was possible to somehow decompress the text and go into more details of specific aspects.
Finally, I was struck by how much LSD played a role in that particular era. And it wasn’t illegal LSD, either. That came later. In the beginning, the LSD was legal, was created by a pharmaceutical company — Sandoz — and was part of government-sponsored research! Now imagine very smart, very influential people with the standard iconic image of that day: white shirt, tie, short hair, suit jacket — all having ingested LSD and come out the other end of it not just fine, but sometimes transformed. When LSD leapt the research barrier into the general public, would any of those very smart and influential people be willing to speak against it? Why should they? It worked fine for them. What an ironic revenge effect from the government!
Some of the people of that time understood something very profound and it kept them going against all frustrations: that the cost of the electronics they were using would continue to become more powerful yet cheaper. This allowed them to dream as big as they wanted. They were holding poker hands that would eventually win big.
Here is one reason why you will want this book on your iPad:
[Alan] Kay became a brilliant synthesizer of ideas. Additionally, he was the first person to approach the design of computers from the point of view of an artist rather than that of an engineer. Coupled with an early and profound understanding of the implication of the scaling principle, he also took an important step beyond Engelbart’s notion of personal-computer-as-vehicle. He conceived of personal computing as an entirely new medium. In thinking about the computer in this way, he remembered reading about the insight of Aldus Manutius, who some forty years after the invention of the printing press established the dimensions of the modern book by understanding that it must be small enough to fit into a saddlebag. The obvious twentieth-century analogy was that a modern computer should be no larger than a notebook. It was a powerful notion, one that was originally apprehended only by a handful of people, people like Kay and Sid Fernbach, the Livermore labs’ supercomputing guru. Once Kay had the concept, though, it was impossible for him to shake it. He would proselytize it widely, and it became one of only two or three true “visionary” ideas that drove Silicon Valley over the next three decades.
Boldfaced emphasis added by me.
The iPad is saddlebag-sized.
I can’t think of a better book to buy and read first on the iPad than this one. It will give you a richer appreciation of the iPad’s roots and will probably inspire some of you to join the “revolution” — or, better, start a brand new one.
I expect this will be available on the iPad because I already see it available in ePub here (on sale) and also here (full price). (Those with, ahem, sKillz can go buy it now and massage it for Shared Folder insertion into the iPad on Saturday. Go! Note that these editions will not work on the iPad as-is, due to different copy-protection schemes.)
An excerpt from John Markoff’s ‘What the Dormouse Said’
ACM: What the Dormouse Said: An Interview with John Markoff
The WELL: John Markoff
Wikipedia: What the Dormouse Said
Podcast and transcript: Computers and the 60s Counterculture