A tweet by @hmason convinced me to dust off my hacker history bookshelf. This is my personal take on the papers and books that anyone interested in the history of the computer industry should someday read:

  • 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, a biography 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. Also of interest is The Chip, a further account of Noyce and of Jack Kilby, another microchip pioneer.
  • Father, Son and Co, Thomas Watson Jr.’s first-person account of the rise of IBM. Follow up with Louis Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, which tells the tale of his time as turnaround CEO of IBM in the early 90s.
  • 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.
  • Dealers Of Lightning, the story of Xerox PARC. Also worth reading is Fumbling The Future, which focuses more specifically on the Xerox Star.
  • The Supermen, the story of Seymour Cray and the early supercomputer industry.
  • 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. A fun follow-up is The Future Was Here, a history of the Amiga.
  • Bootstrapping, (alas) the only biography I know of Douglas Engelbart. (Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos is required viewing for anyone who is interested in the books in this list.)
  • Where Wizards Stay Up Late, a fascinating history of the ARPANET.
  • Hackers, Steven Levy’s wonderful book that focuses on the key personas, regions, and eras that defined the hacker ethos. As a potential follow-up, Levy’s In The Plex carries many of the threads to modern-day Google.
  • Fire In The Valley, which tells the story of the PC revolution. Fire is also one of the few books I know of that delves into detail on Gary Kildall and CP/M.
  • From Counterculture to Cyberculture has become my favorite book about how sixties counterculture gave birth to the early computer industry. It has much to say about Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog, one of the influential countercultural artifacts of that era. For a lighter read on counterculture, I also enjoy What The Dormouse Said.
  • Console Wars, the story of Sega and Nintendo’s epic rivalry.
  • Core Memory, a beautiful photo book of vintage computers with interesting historical blurbs. It sits on the coffee table in my office.

If you have any further suggestions for this list, I’d love to hear them!