Tracy Kidder 1981. The Soul of a New Machine. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 293 pp.

A ripping yarn from the early days of computing with solid state electronics, about how Data General had urgent need of a 32 bit minicomputer to remain competitive with Digital Equipment Corporation. DG put together a team to build the new computer in 1978-1980 (well, the Machiavellian management established 2 competing teams; this is the story of the team that succeeded). I think I first read this in the early 1980s, fairly soon after it was published. Monash University was using VAX computers by DEC, not DG boxes. Malcom Fraser was Australian Prime Minister, Ronald Reagan was about to be elected President, Bob Dylan had just recorded Desire and was about to go gospel, and a year later IBM released the first PC. ARPANET was running but a functioning internet was 10 years away. I was in London in 1980 when Richmond whipped Collingwood to win the VFL premiership (which it hasn’t won since). So it goes (Kurt Vonnegut by now had written his great novels).

The book was a richly-deserving Pullitzer Prize winner and an instant cult classic to both computer geeks as well as business management folk. Nearly 40 years later it is still in print and equally enjoyable to read, even though the technology is barely recognisable. In 1978 computers were built by humans using soldering irons and oscilloscopes. Now humans use computers to build better computers. Soon computers will use computers to build better computers. But will those better computers be able to write nonsense like this? Probably even better nonsense. Tracy Kidder spent a year with the team in order to write this book. He knew nothing about computers when he started this project but (or therefore) explains the arcane elements of the microcode that controls computer hardware without shirking the detail and with great clarity. Even the majority of readers who, like me, have no need to know this stuff still take pleasure in reading it. The narrative of how the teams (hardware and software) were put together and interacted is even more compelling. Management schools apparently still use this as teaching material and it is easy to see why, there are positive, negative and ambiguous features of the team and how it was managed. Surely the overriding lesson is that you have to have a small team of good people, selected by people who know how they are going to have to work together. Then try and protect them from the Forces of Darkness.

Science Friday (no longer just a book club) has a recent YouTube interview with three of the engineers from the project. It doesn’t say much that isn’t in the book but it is very nice to see them speak about the project and their affection for project leader and engineer Tom West, who died in 2011.