★★★★★ A vivid retelling of the birth of modern computing
The Dream Machine traces the birth of modern computing, primarily focusing on the 1940s through the 1970s, but reaching back all the way to the 1920s and looking forward into the 1990s. (It was written in the late 90s.) It’s central scaffolding is the story of J. C. R. Licklider, a visionary psychologist and computer scientist who played a key role in evangelizing, funding, and realizing interactive computing. In particular, through his work at ARPA, he funded development of many of the critical components of computing as we know it today, from the graphical user interface to networking to multi-user systems. In the course of this, he also brought together the early community of researchers that went on to define the course of the computing revolution.
This was mostly at a time when computers meant giant batch processors in the back rooms of large corporations—essentially giant calculators—and “programmers” were considered to be doing secretarial work. It’s hard to remember (or to conceive of) how differently people used to think about computers, which had their roots in mechanical analyzers, analog machines with lots of moving parts which could be set up to solve difficult equations. They were developed in large part to automate tedious tasks (think corporate payrolls) or difficult numerical problems (think artillery firing trajectories). Waldrop does a great job of putting you in the middle of the action and conveying not only the history, but the feeling of the times.
The book starts slow, dropping you directly in the middle of a personal story without any introductory orientation, but quickly becomes an engaging tour through a fascinating cast of technological developments and personalities. It’s impossible to imagine all the alternate paths we could have gone down, but it’s striking how much individuals like Licklider, Norbert Wiener, Von Neumann, and many others personally contributed to the direction technology developed. While it all proceeded with fits and starts, through the messy practical realities and arbitrary decisions of government research and private company management and personal decisions, and while perhaps forward progress and digital computing in some form was inevitable, the particular course we went down was heavily influenced by the vision and day-to-day decisions of a set of real, live people.