Reading: Dealers of Lightning

So one thing about commuting into Cambridge every day is that I’ve become  once again a voracious reader. And I’m not talking what I consider the classics like Black Like Me, Brave New World, A Kiss Before Dying, The Greek Tragedies, etc.

No I’m talking books that delve into the psyche of the discoveries that have shaped the modern world. Be it one about Bell Labs in their heyday, MIT’s Rad Lab, DARPA, Xerox PARC, and the Manhattan Project.

The book is by Michael Hiltzik and titled “Dealers of Lightning”. A fascinating romp through the personalities that gave us modern technology. Everything we do on computers – it came out of someones mind. Think about that for a second. It’s fascinating.

I’ve just begun reading but am already notating the thing like crazy. The management style omnipresent in all those books – interdisciplinary teams but better yet, the men who built those teams. I suppose it interests me because i found out well over a decade ago that my management style is team builder.

But here’s the synopsis of the developments to come out of Xerox PARC:

  • Graphic User Interface
  • Ethernet – the predominant networking technology. Somewhere in your home if you have internet service there are Ethernet ports.
  • Laser Printers

And a brief view of how we got where we are today:

  • Bell Labs invents the transistor in the late 1940’s
  • Transistor is further developed in the 1950’s.
  • By the 1950’s computers start coming to the fore – but they’re basically calculating machines. Still are to some degree today.
  • By the 1960’s we start seeing people frustrated by the non-interactive nature of computing. I got exposed to this in the early 1980’s when I took a PL/I programming course. We had to use IBM Model 29 card punch machines to code up our programs and then submit a deck of cards to be processed. The book laments the pitfalls of such, like your 6000 line program craps at line 430 because you forgot a comma. So you fix the comma issue and re-submit the deck. Then you realize you somehow swapped the 0 and O characters on line 5400. It was frustrating and could take DAYS. For me it was particularly frustrating as I’d started the programming kick with an interactive time shared system call RSTS/E that ran on a DEC PDP-11/70.
  • But in the 1960’s men like Bob Taylor, and his crew plus the general area around Silicon Valley started bubbling with ideas from how to hook computers together, to time sharing, to early graphic user interfaces. Hell I’ve seen Spacewar on a DEC PDP-12 LINC. (LINC is Laboratory Instrument Computer)
  • And right now I’m posting this on a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) machine running Windows 10.
  • They also dreamed up small, portable computing. Sitting right next to me are my cell phone and my Amazon Fire HD6 tablet. Between them they represent the culmination of all of the above.
  • I’m waiting to see where the quantum world takes us. Imagine computing on such a massive parallel quantum system – this is at the level down below the atom which is where we are now.
  • I also see much more immersive systems coming with high quality 3D systems, etc.

Needless to say I’m tearing through the book rapidly. Because I also like knowing where we came from. I got to experience some of that. But by the time I’d gotten there a lot had been settled already. But then, who knows where I’ll end up.

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