Computing Books | 2223

I realised I knew very little about the history of computing. Here’s two books I recently correcting my ignorance. 

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Computing Books

I recently re-read Tracy Kidder’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning Non-Fiction book: The Soul of a New Machine. I first read it years ago, but re-reading in 2022 I was blown away by how good it is.

Finishing the book, I realised I knew very little about the history of computing.

We all, I presume, know the names of people like Johannes Gutenburg, Thomas Edison, Graham Bell, Tesla, and Berners-lee. But off the top of your head can you tell me who invented the Transistor? What about the Microchip?

I’ve read two books recently, correcting my ignorance. The first was:

Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age

Part of the β€˜Sloan Technology Series’ published at the end of the last millennium. Given how much I enjoyed Crystal Fire I might pick up some of the other titles in the series. I have my ebay-eyes on Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun, about the history of the hydrogen bomb. And Dream Reaper, about the development of farm machinery.

Crystal Fire follows the lives of the three men who shared the nobel prize for the transistor’s discovery. John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley. The opening chapters trace the men’s family histories. Starting the story in the 1850’s with their grandparents. It tells concurrent stories of their families and the parallel story of developments in electricity and physics. It gives you a strong sense of the pace of discovery and upheaval in physics at the end of the 19th Century. The instrumentalization of electricity and the impact of quantum physics. All in one lifetime.

It goes on to cover the impact of the second world war, not only on the men’s lives, but on technology. The growing use of the valve amplifier in circuity for radar, radio and bomb switches etc.

One detail I found particularly interesting. When the US regulated the radio spectrum and stations for the first time in the 1920’s. The physics of how a crystal rectifier decoded radio signals was totally unknown. Radios were in millions of homes a decade later and still no-one knew how they worked – only that they did.

Post WW2 the story zooms in on Bell Labs’ transistor and semiconductor research group. Using original notebooks and interviews, we are taken day by day, week by week through a series of experiments and discoveries. It’s a wonderful vignette of Bell Labs in the late 40’s early 1950’s. Not so much Mad Man, but Nerd Men. Geeks in slacks and crisp white short sleeved shirts with pocket protectors. Proto space race drip.

The book then follows the three men’s lives post discovery, and post Bell Labs. John Bardeen, went on to become the only person to win the Nobel Prize for physics twice. First in 1956 for his work on semiconductors, and then again in 1972 for his work on superconductors. Walter Brattain, when asked about his semiconductor work in later life lamented. “The only regret I have about the transistor is its use for rock and roll”.

The final third of the book covers William Shockley’s cross country move from Bell Labs to California. Founding Shockley Semiconductor. Due to his insufferable management style, employees kept quitting. Starting their own firms – kickstarting Silicon Valley as we know it today. Shockley’s story also takes an astonishing turn in the late 70’s. With his transformation into a debate-me-bro racist. He spent the last years of his life spouting abhorrent views on race science and eugenics in the media.

The next back to back book I read was:

The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution.

This book opens with the same cast of characters as Crystal Fire and the semiconductor research group at Bell Labs. But very quickly, people in supporting roles from the first book emerge now central to the new story. Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce – the inventors of the integrated circuit or microchip.

Other famous names like Gordon Moore – coiner of Moore’s law – and cofounder of Intel with Noyce show up too. Both men worked at Shockley Semiconductor before mutinying. Leaving to founding Fairchild Semiconductor, then in turn starting Intel.

The Chip, like Crystal Fire, is neither a biography, or a technical text. Instead, they both straddle the two modes carefully. Creating a very compelling narrative and educational text. For example, in addition to stories and histories of the men and companies involved. I came away from both books with a firm grasp of how things like; diodes, rectifiers, binary numbers, logic gates, and microchip manufacturing works.

The story that began in Crystal Fire is taken right up to the turn of the millennium in The Chip. The Chip covers the importance of the semiconductor to the space race and US missile program. Recounts the story of Texas Instruments’ pocket calculator, and just how revolutionary it was. Also fascinating, is the adoption of knowledge and expertise from the watchmaking and photographic worlds. Techniques borrowed from those industries are the foundation of the integrated circuit. We should consider the design and production of integrated circuits as an extension of the lineage of watch and clock making.

The book also covers the founders of Sony electronics and its history. How the Japanese semiconductor industry out-competed the American semiconductor industry with quality control.

Lastly, as with Brattain’s comment about the transistor and rock and roll. Years later, when asked about the invention of the integrated circuit, Jack Kilby lamented that it had created the mobile phone.


The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.

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2 responses to “Computing Books | 2223”

  1. […] Or sending and spending Bitcoin in 2012. But the more I learn about the history of computing (see episode 22-23) I realise how wrong I […]

  2. […] Computing Books […]

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