Wednesday, 3 October 2012

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.

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