In honour of the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, I’ve been reading Computing: A Concise History by Paul Ceruzzi. It’s a delightful small book, very nicely produced and with illustrations, perfect for a journey or to slip in a pocket for commuting. It’s also, in 150 pages, a super overview of the history of this utterly transformational technology from the early days of applications of digital approaches in mechanical forms (including – I never knew this – holes punched into old movie tape) to the Web.
What I like about the book is that it draws out the important analytical milestones such as binary code or the principle of storing programmes naturally from the course of events – it is not simply a catalogue of inventions, as a short book covering a huge territory could be. It also emphasizes the way the converged computing and communication we have today is the confluence of very many rivers of innovation. While this looks inevitable with hindsight, there was much happenstance along the way.
In a short book, Alan Turing himself gets little space. I enjoyed Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe is on my wishlist. There’s a new paperback out, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair Mackay. Another recent book, on the analytics of computing, is John MacCormick’s 9 Algorithms That Changed the Future, which I reviewed here.
For the commercial history of the American computer industry, the best I’ve come across is Robert Cringely’s Accidental Empires – a bit outdated now, though. Georgina Ferry’s A Computer Called Leo is a nice bit of the UK industry’s history. And for something more reflective about computers and society, Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention edited by Francis Spufford and Jenny Uglow is an all-time favourite.