A Hacker History Bookshelf

Update: I dusted off and extended the bookshelf in a newer blog post. Ah, for the days of blikis.

Seven years ago, Steve Jobs introduced the original iPhone. It was a watershed moment for our industry, when an array of just-mature technologies was brought together to produce a radically new and better computing experience. In many ways, I see Jobs’ introduction as a spiritual successor to Doug Engelbart’s Mother Of All Demos, which introduced the world to mice, bitmapped displays, window systems, hypertext, and much more besides. Amazingly, Engelbart’s famous demo is now 45 years old.

What other people, landmarks, and forgotten but essential lore can help us understand how we’ve arrived here, today? What can help us gain a broader perspective on where we might go tomorrow? These questions led me to put together a hacker history reading list:

  • As We May Think, Vannevar Bush’s milestone post-war article arguing for a revolution in information accessibility and management.
  • The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner’s history of influential Bell Labs
  • The Man Behind The Microchip, the story of Robert Noyce and Fairchild Semiconductor. We probably don’t appreciate today just how much Fairchild (and Noyce) set the tone for entrepreneurship in the Valley.
  • The Curse Of Xanadu, a look at our industry’s first true vaporware, and at the tragic genius of Ted Nelson, one of its countercultural heroes. (See also Nelson’s famous and expensive-to-acquire Computer Lib/Dream Machines, which declared that “You can and must understand computers NOW”.)
  • Soul Of A New Machine, Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winner about a team of engineers at Data General working to breathe life into a new minicomputer.
  • Commodore: A Company on the Edge, Brian Bangall’s examination of the complex early PC market, and of one company’s epic rise and fall.
  • Where Wizards Stay Up Late, a fascinating history of the ARPANET.
  • Hackers and Fire In The Valley, both of which tell the story of the PC revolution. Hackers focuses more on personas, whereas Fire weaves a more coherent timeline. (Fire is also one of the few books I know of that delves into detail on Gary Kildall and CP/M.)
  • What The Dormouse Said, an entertaining book about sixties counterculture and its unexpected intersections with the early computer industry. Also, The Whole Earth Catalog, one of the influential countercultural artifacts of that era.
  • Core Memory, a beautiful photo book of vintage computers with interesting historical blurbs. It sits on the coffeetable at my office.

Back when the App Store was young and the gold rush was new, I worried that we’d forgotten our roots. Since then, I’ve learned to just sit back and let the world take its distributed, stochastic course. I simply want my own path through the industry to keep its history well in mind.