Favorite Books on the History of Computing

(Originally prepared for the Barnes & Noble web site in April 2000)

While researching my book Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, I had the opportunity to explore the historical and technological roots of computing. I accumulated quite a few books on the subject and I’m still buying them even after the book is published. Here, in roughly chronological order of the subjects they cover, are some of my favorites:

Computing Before Computers edited by William Aspray (Iowa State University Press, 1990)

Five prominent and technically-savvy historians have contributed to this collection of articles covering computing devices from the abacus through the ENIAC. One highlight is the chapter on the oft-neglected era of analog computers. The book includes many helpful photographs and illustrations as well as annotated bibliographies.

A History of Computing Technology, second edition, by Michael R. Williams (IEEE Computer Society Press, 1997)

By no means as comprehensive as the title suggests, almost half this book covers computing before the twentieth century, and the later coverage concludes with the 1961 introduction of the IBM 360. But Williams’ focus on number systems, mechanical calculators, difference engines, and early computers makes this text very valuable.

Charles Babbage: On the Principles and Development of the Calculator and Other Seminal Writings by Charles Babbage and Others (Dover Publications, 1961)

If you can’t afford the 11-volume Works of Charles Babbage, this is the next best thing. Babbage’s Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, although never finished, are the closest devices to a computer that the nineteenth century has to offer. This collection combines Babbage’s writings and other nineteenth-century chronicles about Babbage’s machines.

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (Simon & Schuster, 1983)

While working on a mathematics problem involving the solvability of Diophantine equations, Alan Turing imagined a type of primal computer and helped found the field of computability. This definitive and detailed biography chronicles Turing’s intellectual triumphs and eventual personal tragedy, driven to suicide just short of his 42nd birthday by a British government intolerant of Turing’s homosexuality.

Reckoners: The Prehistory of the Digital Computer, from Relays to the Stored Program Concept, 1935-1945 by Paul E. Ceruzzi (Greenwood Press, 1983)

Before digital computers were made out of transistors, they were made out of vacuum tubes, and before that, electromechanical relays. Fascinating chapters on the seminal relay-based machines of Conrad Zuse, Howard Aiken, and George Stibitz highlight this indispensable book. One of my personal favorites.

Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer by I. Bernard Cohen (The MIT Press, 1999)

Makin’ Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer edited by I. Bernard Cohen and Gregory W. Welch (The MIT Press, 1999)

These companion volumes explore the life and work of Howard Aiken, conceiver of the relay-based Harvard Mark 1 (also known as the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator) and the originator of the first courses in a Masters program devoted to “applied mathematics with a strong flavor of computing machinery,” later known as “computer science.” The second volume is a collection of technical essays and reminiscences.

ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer by Scott McCartney (Walker Publishing, 1999)

Although technically wobbly, this entertaining small book tells the story of John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, the designers and of the ENIAC and UNIVAC. John von Neumann’s role is accordingly devalued. Watch how genius and cooperation degenerate into grandstanding, monopoly, patent fights, and court battles. Sound familiar?

From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine, edited by James M. Nyce and Paul Kahn (Academic Press, 1991)

Vannevar Bush, who designed the Differential Analyzer (a 1920s analog computer) and coordinated U.S. scientific research during WW II, invented the concept of hypertext in 1941. While his original article on the hypothetical machine he called Memex has been widely disseminated, this volume collects several other related essays and articles by Bush and others about the legacy of Memex. It’s like a Memex bibliography compiled into one book.

Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997)

This detailed and informative account of the invention of the transistor also covers the scientific background that made transistors possible and concludes with the invention of the integrated circuit. Particularly valuable is the portrait of William Shockley before he embarked on his nutty racial theories.

Journey to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Guidance Computer by Eldon C. Hall (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1996)

The title alone should trigger the drooling response in computer wonks. I wish the contents were as appetizing. You’ll wish this book were longer, more focused, better organized, and the illustrations more informative. But until a better book on this topic comes along, this will have to do.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy (Anchor Press, 1984)

This classic chronicle of computer fanaticism beginning at MIT in 1959 is still immensely entertaining, and Levy — who later wrote a history of the Macintosh and who now writes for Newsweek — is still one of the best computer writers around. Richard Stallman, who Levy calls “the last hacker” and who later founded the Free Software Foundation and Gnu project, makes an appearance in the last chapter.

Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, second edition, by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine.

I haven’t gotten around to reading this new edition yet, but I remember being enthralled by the first edition when I first read it over ten years ago. This is a history that really gets moving only with the 1975 introduction of the MITS Altair.

Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry — and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews (Doubleday, 1993)

Even if Stephen Manes wasn’t a friend of mine and I didn’t make an appearance in Chapter 23, I’d still recommend this book, as much a history of Microsoft and Windows as a biography of its cofounder. Don’t be fooled by imitations: This one is carefully researched and documented.

A History of Modern Computing by Paul E. Ceruzzi (The MIT Press, 1998)

This book picks up in 1945 where Ceruzzi’s Reckoners left off. It’s longer and more sprawling than the earlier book, and is certainly well researched, even if later chapters sometimes seem peculiarly unbalanced. (Surely a crucial development in the past decade has been the move from text-based environments to highly-interactive graphical and multimedia environments, yet a naïve reader of Ceruzzi wouldn’t conclude this.)

Computer: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray (BasicBooks, 1996)

And finally, here is the best single-volume history of the computer, in print or out. It begins with Babbage and ends with the World Wide Web. The emphasis always seems right on target (the penultimate chapter on graphical environments is entitled “The Shift to Software”), the writing is lively, and the chapter notes offer excellent suggestions for further reading.

About Charles Petzold

Charles Petzold has been writing about computers since 1984. For nearly 10 years between 1985 and 1995, he appeared in almost every issue of PC Magazine, first with the PC Tutor column and then with Environments, a column about programming for post-DOS environments. Petzold wrote the very first magazine article about Windows programming, which appeared in the December 1986 issue of Microsoft Systems Journal, and then wrote one of the first Windows programming books, Programming Windows. First published in 1988 and currently in its fifth edition, Programming Windows has remained one of the most popular books on the subject.

Petzold’s most-recent book is Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, a journey through the digital technologies that make computers work, starting with the telegraph and Morse code. Code is Petzold’s first book written for a general audience and signals a new direction for his writing. When not writing, he enjoys reading, going to movies, following the triumphs of the New York Liberty, enjoying New York City, and, of course, programming.

For more books, see the annotated bibliography for Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Sofware.

© Charles Petzold, 2000
This page last updated May, 2002