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A new history of modern computing
Haigh T., Ceruzzi P., MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2021. 544 pp. Type: Book (978-2-625429-00-8)
Date Reviewed: May 17 2024

A new history of modern computing supplants Paul Ceruzzi’s A history of modern computing, released in its second edition over two decades ago [1]. It features a new lead author, historian Thomas Haigh. I will not compare the two versions beyond reference to the authors’ own remarks on the earlier book in a preface (pages 1 to 7) called “Becoming Universal.” Here the authors sketch the adherence and alterations made to the earlier book, along with brief homage to Babbage’s analytical engine, Zuse’s Z3, and Flowers’s Colossus. These machines have all been shown to run a universal Turing machine with adjustments, but that does not alter the authors’ good choice of ENIAC as the place to start. They settle on ENIAC because it has all the properties of a programmable electronic digital computer, whereas the half-dozen predecessors lack something.

This detailed compilation is not a reference work. It is a narrative exploration. Supplied with a lengthy and decent index, it can offer thousands of historical contexts, but foremost it is a 77-year story of computing. The initial embodiment and the recent ubiquity and vanishment are captured in the first and penultimate chapters: “Inventing the Computer” and “The Computer Is Everywhere and Nowhere.”

There are 15 chapters, and 12 are headed “The Computer Becomes a/n ___.” The blank fillers are: scientific super tool, data processing device, real-time control system, interactive tool, communications platform, personal plaything, office equipment, graphical tool, minicomputer, universal media device, publishing platform, and network. These are not disjoint or even successive. Branches develop, foundations overlap, histories accumulate. Endnotes provide specific references to the extensive bibliography. Some offer additional comments, but the text stands on its own. And, from experience, I suggest every one of the 423 text pages is worth careful reading. Another hundred pages cover front and very useful back matter.

Readers will encounter many characters they have heard about, plausibly seen. Personal connections include my visiting Univac #8 in Louisville (page 25) as a teenager, asking the white-coat guide if it was digital or analog and whether they let memory leak away (as done in sci-fi I had read). John McCarthy (with Marvin Minsky) and F. J. Corbató first taught me computing. I wrote my thesis with WordStar on a modded TRS-80. My first computer was a Model 100; my second was a Toshiba T1000SE; I’m using an iMac today. All appear on this broad stage.

People speak for themselves. By hewing to original sources, the authors undercut the street dogma on what happened. Quotes of inventors, developers, users, critics, experts, or casual observers enliven every page. Particular care is taken to highlight the multiple, diverse, and creative contributions of women, well beyond the six “women of ENIAC.”

The authors do not focus on clever things that did not affect the future, such as the Russians’ use of balanced ternary representation of integers. I feel they did (and necessarily) leave out clever people with large impact. My short list contains: Seymour Rubinstein, Jim Gray, Marvin Minsky, Kim Polese, Lee Felsenstein, Stephen Wolfram, Mechanical Turk, Jaron Lanier, Pat McGovern, Terry Winograd, Carlo Séquin, Brenda Laurel, Danny Hillis, and Ed Catmull.

Mostly the editing is stellar, and only a few shortfalls can be mentioned. Several concepts appear before adequate definition, including drum, DOS, Lisp, PC, and MP3. There are a few undefined terms, such as paywall, kernel, code; italicized neologisms may be barely explained. These can all be covered by recognizing that most readers are likely to be somewhat familiar with computing. Minor copyediting flaws such as tense confusion closing the first paragraph on page 5, unexpanded SQL, Wirth, Evans, “IMPS” for “IMPs” on page 146, “licenses” for “licensees” on page 228, an extraneous “had” on page 357, and a missing comma or two, do not affect readability.

While the content is compelling, there must be overall praise for the kindness, the wit, and the warmth offered equally to the successful and failed endeavors of so many contributors, from the unrecognized pioneers like Adele Goldstine and Klára Dán von Neumann to the flawed entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Holmes. However cranky, the stars (people, companies, platforms, machines, software) are treated with humanity, courtesy, and generosity.

This is a magnificent book, not only for the depth, breadth, and accuracy of the historical perspectives, but even more for the ingenious bundling of the many chapters in a final epilogue guided and driven by a touring Tesla Model S.

The second edition of A history of modern computing had a five-year bridge chapter added. Although the current authors try to exit with no ties to the now, their loving perspective on present developments will be welcome. This brilliant book deserves many updates.

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Goodreads

Reviewer:  Benjamin Wells Review #: CR147766
1) Ceruzzi, P. E. A history of modern computing (2nd ed.). MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003.
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