Mini review: “The Soul Of A New Machine” by Tracy Kidder

This wonderful slice of computing history comes from 1982 and tells the background story of the creation of a new computer by a team at the company Data General. They had a successful line of 16-bit computers but the business was being threatened by competitors who were already producing 32-bit machines.

I’d never heard of Data General but it turns out that at the end of the 1970s they were a big deal, although a lot more brash and rough around the edges than their competitors such as IBM.

There is always a concern with a book this old that the issues would no longer be relevant, the technology archaic. Neither is true. Processors have advanced in the meantime (and to some extent regressed – see below) but they still represent the core of a system. The issues the author raises are more than just technical – his focus is on the personalities of the team members, the challenges and the pressures they face.

In the last couple of years we have seen issues such as Spectre and Meltdown arising from flaws introduced in CPUs in the 1990’s, so processor design and microcode still impact modern computing. Also, check out the new Mac Pro from Apple – a computer that they had to design and build from scratch under severe time pressure to ensure that the company kept an important section of it’s user-base happy. I’m sure that the experience of the engineers on that project would echo what happened decades ago in the Data General offices.

The author does an excellent job of explaining the technical issues without going too deep (or finds a suitable metaphor to put his point across) and keeps the pace flowing nicely.

And to wrap it up, the bitter-sweet ending rings true – he managed to capture a special moment in time and did it brilliantly. You are fully engaged in the story and the people. This is an excellent book and I recommend it to everyone, especially if you work in IT.

• Wikipedia: Data General

• The Computer Museum History Center: Core 2.1 – The Data General Nova (direct link to PDF file)

• Wired: Souls, Lost and Found (2008)

• Spare Cycles: Article: “SPACEWAR” by Stewart Brand (Rolling Stone magazine, December 1972)

• Spare Cycles: Mini review: “Troublemakers: How a Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented The Future” by Leslie Berlin

• Spare Cycles: Article: “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce” by Tom Wolfe

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