Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Book: Computing: A Concise History by Paul E. Ceruzzi

Score: 4 / 5

I read this book together with A History of Modern Computing by the same author, and wrote about it here.  This book is part of a series of meant for the broad audience (technical or not) to grasp the development of a field in a concise package.

Ceruzzi shows that through the history of computing, from its earliest conception by Babbage to the present day facebook, 4 main themes have driven the development of computing:

  • Digitization: the encoding of information into electric pulses and signals for calculation, data storage, control, and communication in binary arithmetic
  • Convergence: various independent strands of technological developments converge to form a new technology that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  A smart phone, for instance is a convergence of the phone, telegraph, radio, television, phonograph, computer, and more.
  • Solid state electronics: the invention of the transistor, integrated circuit, among others, and their betterment in enhancing the various computing capabilities (Moore’s law)
  • Human-Machine Interface: the development of ever higher levels of abstraction of interface between humans and machine, from compilers to graphical user interfaces and beyond

My favourite is to see that computers are in essence just a small set of fundamental logic gates in huge numbers, and that the current drive of “user friendliness” has its roots in the development of the compilers to make programming easier and for WWII machine operators, many of whom have no formal technical training, must operate complex machineries like radars in order to ably intercept artillery aircraft.  Some of what was at the forefront of computing – mainframes as an example, have stopped dominating the front page of newspapers, yet still remain relevant and operating much of our fundamental functions of society – payroll, inventories, and financial transactions.  In some ways, our “cloud enabled” world makes mainframes more important.  It’s another way to see computing in context and the power of abstractions as computing is made more accessible.

This book is readable, insightful and provides a very condensed version of computing history.


Book: A History of Modern Computing by Paul E. Ceruzzi

Score: 4.5 / 5

“Mobile” and “Social” are probably what first comes to many people’s mind in computing technology today.  However, remembering the days when I didn’t have a cell phone and when I used a computer solely to play Tetris, I wondered what computing was and how it came to be.  How did a machine, first invented as large systems to perform tedious mathematical calculations costing millions become the personal empowering media connected through a network?

Luckily, Paul Ceruzzi provides some answers.  This book documents the history of computing primarily in the US from the ENIAC to the boom/bust.

My favourite theme was how the landscape was disrupted and redefined time and again – IBM’s mainframe lost dramatic market share due to the ever powerful smaller computing platforms (including PCs) that using innovative hardware and architecture, enabled by fast networking technology.  The specialized word processing equipment lost to a general computing platform (the PC) with stored programming principle that made cheaper and more powerful word processing capabilities possible.  Gradually, computing went from what benefited the scientific and engineering community to empower the commercial world that had been used to punch card technology, and gone from centralized batch mode of processing data to a distributed, networked, and interactive paradigm. 

During this transition, multiple iterations of automation gave what we take for granted today.  Operating systems replaced the human operators whose job was to start various jobs specified by the programmers and mounting/demounting tapes.  The graphical user interface turned users into programmers, replacing the days when getting a computer to solve a different problem meant an engineer days of rewiring the machine, even if the problem itself would take mere minutes to solve.  We’ve come a long way.

This book is a detailed and thrilling account showing the political, social, and technical factors that culminated in important events that changed the computing landscape.  The technical detail makes it more understandable to a technical audience, but it is an insightful and enjoyable read (for me, I hope for you, too).

ps. if you prefer, this documentary is the best I’ve seen on the history of computing and contains 5 parts, 1 hour each.