Friday, February 03, 2006

March of Computers

Technology has been moving at a fast, some might say a breathtaking, pace. Compared to the period before World War II, inventions and innovations in Technology has been varied but many of them have been brought together to give us the modern electronic computers. I say varied because today's computers are a combination of vision, enterprise, mechanical engineering, electrical/electronic genius, physics, psychology, military designs and ambitions, business and consumerism. How did so many factors bring about the evolution of the modern computer? What were the driving forces and how were the technological challenges overcomed? Who invented the internet (certainly not Al Gore) and why was the PDA invented? What of the modern smartphones which can almost double-up as computers?

Swedin and Ferro answers many of these questions in their book "Computers - The Life Story of a Technology". This book offers a broad sweep of the history of computers, from prehistoric times till today. They offer a chronology of the key developments from 35,000 BC onwards! Obviously, such a wide scope will mean that their narrative can only be brief on each event that they describe. For example, the story of Intel only got 6 pages of narrative, 9 if you count incidental references, and the account of the development of the Internet did't start until page 118 of this 166 page book. The book is largely chronological although towards the latter half of the book, it tended to jump back and forth, if only because many related technologies saw significant developments at about the same time.

If you are looking for a detailed and comprehensive history, this is not the right book, but if you want a broad sweep, then this book is a good starting point to explore more deeply the key events in the development of the computer. For example, your interest may be piqued enough about the story of the CRAY supercomputer to want to pick up a book devoted to it, or about Xerox's PARC, or about Intel, or about IBM and their development of their very successful System/360, or even about more remote stories about how Eckert and Mauchly built the world's first commercial computer, the UNIVAC, and how their ideas were essentially taken from that of John Atanasoff (now that's a name you rarely come across). There are many stories in this book about people who agonised over the problems of the day, and how they went about solving those problems. Indeed, without their genius and preseverance, the story of computers would be a very different one today.

This is, in some sections, an engrossing book and it will not take too long to finish it. But there is enough in this book that you will come away learning something new.