Brad Feld

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Book: Computing in the Middle Ages

Jul 19, 2009
Category Books

The book I read tonight – Computing in the Middle Ages: A View From the Trenches 1955-1983 by Severo Ornstein – stood out in stark contrast to the book I read yesterday – The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich.

Both were great (my review of Mezrich’s book is in the post Mastering A Genre – Book: The Accidental Billionaires).  Both were about key moments in the creation of revolution computing technology.  Both were quick, fascinating, and engrossing reads for anyone who likes interesting stories about people behind seminal computing innovation.

Ornstein’s book was autobiographical.  He was there at the beginning – at MIT’s Lincoln Lab in the 1950’s working on the SAGE air-defense system followed by time on the TX-2 group as a key designer of the LINC.  He moved with the LINC team to Washington University in St. Louis where he again was a key designer of Macromodules.  When he got tired of St. Louis he went back to Cambridge, joined BBN, was a key member of the BBN team that responded the ARPANET RPF, and was one of the primary hardware designers of the IMP.  In the mid-1970’s he headed to Xerox PARC where – among other things – he led the team that created the Dover laser printer, the Dorado Computer, and Mockingbird (the first computer-based music-score editor). 

Not quite “build a web site to try to hook up with hot girls” (the starting point of the story arc of Mezrich’s book), but at least as important.  While this is an autobiography and is “historical” in parts, Ornstein is a fine writer who tells plenty of humorous anecdotes while filling in a lot of historical gaps that are often left out of “the story of the creation of the Internet”, including the decade that led up to it.

Ornstein ends his story in 1983, the same year that I entered MIT as a freshman.  While I bought an Apple II with my Bar Mitzvah money when I was 13 (December 1978), this was merely a preamble for what I discovered at MIT, including the Internet and – in 1994 – the World Wide Web.  Among many others, I have Ornstein to thank for this.

Next up – some real mental floss that has nothing to do with computers – say David Stone’s new book The Venetian Judgment.