July 11, 1996
Blending strong narrative history and a fascinating look at the interface of business and technology, Computer: A History of the Information Machine traces the dramatic story of the invention of the computer.
Earlier histories of the computer have depicted it as a tool both created by and to be used by scientists to solve their own number-crunching problems – as late as 1949 it was thought by some that the world would never need more than a dozen machines. This book suggests a richer story behind the computer’s creation, one that shows how business and government were the first to explore the unlimited potential of the machine as an information processor. Not surprisingly, at the heart of the business story is the name IBM.
Here, then, is a story of old-fashioned entrepreneurship in a symbiotic relationship with scientific know-how. It begins way back when “computers” were people who did the computational work of scientists, and Charles Babbage attempted in vain to mechanize the process. But it also shows how entrepreneurs like Herman Hollerith, seeing a business opportunity in a machine that could mechanically tabulate the U.S. census, created a punched-card tabulator that became the technology that created IBM.
The authors show how ENIAC, the first fully electronic computer, emerged out of the wartime need of the military for computers that performed at lightning speed and did not need human intervention at any stage of the process. They tell the fascinating but little-known story of Project Whirlwind, in which an MIT professor planned to build an all-aircraft flight simulator and ended up developing the first computer ever to operate in real time. Soon this led to revolutionary new ways of transacting business – from airline reservations to supermarket barcodes.
Most interesting is the story of how the computer began to reshape broad segments of our society when the PC, or personal computer, enabled new modes of computing that liberated people from dependence on room-sized, enormously expensive mainframe computers. Oddly, the established computer companies initially missed the potential of the PC and ignored it, allowing upstart firms such as Apple and Microsoft to become the fastest-growing firms of the twentieth century.
Filled with lively insights – many about the world of computing in the 1990s, such as the strategy behind Microsoft Windows – as well as a discussion of the rise and creation of the World Wide Web, here is a book no one who owns or uses a computer will want to miss.
Martin Campbell-Kelly is a reader in computer science at the University of Warwick in England. William Aspray is Executive Director of the Computing Research Association in Washington, D.C. Both are historians with a specialization in the history of computers.