Author: Peter J. Bentley
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Audience: General audience
Reviewer: Mike James
This book is hard to pin down. It isn't really a history but it has a lot of stories of the early days. It isn't really a technical overview but it has lots of technical details. It isn't really a guide to the future but it has plenty of speculations. It's possibly best described as an interested person's guide to all things computer related but this too doesn't hit the mark.
The book is populated by the ghosts of famous computer pioneers but a very specific selection all based on Alan Turing and the people he interacted with or had some influence on - Church, Von Neumann, Shannon, etc. Sometimes the connections are a bit tenuous but this doesn't matter too much.
All the chapters are numbered in binary and, after 000 being an introduction that looks at how computers pervade our lives, Chapter 001 opens the book with a look a Turing and computability - the really academic side of computing. If you know about computability and complexity theory then there is nothing new here, but for the general reader it gives a reasonable introduction to the subject. It does go a bit further than usual, introducing ideas like Kolmogorov complexity. None of the ideas are introduced at any length and if you blink you could miss the chance to learn something. For the general reader just wanting the flavor of the theory then this probably doesn't matter too much.
In this chapter we first meet the bias of the author towards UCL (University College London) and its computer department - indeed the book is dedicated to the UCL computer department. As a graduate of said institution I can vouch for its excellence, but even I found the bias a little strange and eventually wearing as the book progressed.
The second chapter, 010, tells the story of how the computer was invented and opens with a description of how Shannon invented a logic gate-based approach to hardware. Shannon occurs so often in the book that he almost outranks Turing as the book's hero. We work our way through the usual suspects - ENIAC, Zuse, and so on working our way to Intel and Moore's law. The chapter closes with a look at some of the things the future might hold beyond the Von Neumann architecture. It is a very short chapter and it doesn't really do justice to the subject but then you would need a whole book to do that.
The next chapter is about the software and it attempts to give the reader and idea of what software and programming is all about - it even introduces assembler and the Quicksort in C, but these are just small examples and the pace moves the reader on to bigger issues very quickly. We learn about the software crisis and bugs and how we might solve the problems.
Chapter 100 is about the Internet and how it developed. A lot of space is spent on documenting relatively small events in expanding ARPANET to include the UK. This may be an important event but, for the general reader. it takes up space that would be better allocated to important and more general developments.
Chapter 101 covers the development of friendly computer interfaces - WIMPS and GUIs and so on; Chapter 110 is about AI with a heavy emphasis on the biological analog approach; and the final chapter deals with the impact of the computer on health, medicine, biology and so on.
The book comes to an end with a collection of endnotes and bibliographic notes that are longer than the typical chapter. While such a collection might be appropriate in an academic book they are slightly out of place here. The endnotes are particularly irritating as they seem to indicate that there is a second level of book trying to get out of the one we are presented with - only 240 pages of the 340 in total. Most of the endnotes should have been worked into the main part of the book.
Overall I enjoyed reading this book but it isn't going to suit everyone. There is a lot of technical material in here, but most of it is presented in such an abbreviated form that an innocent reader is unlikely to understand more than a flavor of the idea. If this is all you want, or you already know the ideas, there's no problem; however if you want to have things explained to you then this book might just irritate. It also misses out large chunks of technology and concentrates on a personal selection that seems to be mostly influenced by who is working on what at UCL.
I enjoyed some of the anecdotes about when x met y and the potted biographies and motivations, but I doubt many readers are going to be enthralled. Each chapter starts as if it was a biographic novel but this literary style is soon abandoned for a list of what they did and the technologies. This isn't a book for biography lovers. And this is the difficulty with recommending the book - working out exactly who it is aimed at and yet I enjoyed it for all its failings.