Soul of a New Machine

Tracy Kidder

That was what made it fun; he could actually touch the machine and make it obey him. “I’d run a little program and when it worked, I’d get a little high, and then I’d do another. It was neat. I loved writing programs. I could control the machine. I could make it express my own thoughts. It was an expansion of the mind to have a computer.”

I recently went on a media kick consisting of shows and books about the early computer era. The Wild West days of computing have been brought to light primarily by books memorializing Steve Jobs and romanticizing some of his early garage exploits. Halt and Catch Fire, the AMC show, gives us more visions of gunslinger engineers fighting against a large corporation from their garages.

Soul of a New Machine is a work in non-fiction, chronicling the work of a single department of a single company at the beginning of the 1980s. At Data General, we observe a new department building a hybrid computer that nobody outside of their group really believes in. We hear from their new recruits all the way up to their managers as they fight the nitty gritty of building a computer before the modern age of operating systems and manufacturers.

What separates this book from some of the tv and movie representations of building computers is both the holistic picture we get of both engineering and management, but also the sandpaper quality of the work mixed in with the overall dreamlike optimism of the engineers. Those working on the physical machine are generally unfazed by things like deadlines, instead hunching over their workstations and testing motherboards late into the night.

By the end of the book, the computer itself has almost fallen out of focus in favor of studying the team dynamics. Building any sort of software or hardware product is an intensely complicated affair where minute mistakes can have catastrophic outcomes. This leads to some stories that are entertaining but have a subtle layer of reprehension beneath it. One of the most popular stories is that of an engineer who quits the project to go work on a farm, having run his head against a wall programming events that measure in milliseconds. His quote is "I never want to deal with a length of time shorter than a season."

The writing is a portrait of a certain time in computer engineering, with a rich level of detail that brings the subjects to life. A lot of the engineers we hear from are handily broken out into teams like the Hardy Boys (Hardware) and we see little microcosms of each team's identity. The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts, but the whole is the experience more than the final machine.


320 pages
Published 2000
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