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.


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