Hackers - Heroes of the Computer Revolution



A rather different sort of computer book to those that I usually review and so deserving of a different sort of review. In any case my usual rating system doesn't have an option high enough for this particular book as in my opinion it really ranks about six or seven out of five.

This book is basically a history of computers covering the period from the early nineteen fifties through to the early nineteen eighties.This was the period where computers went from being expensive tools only available to scientists and the military to being another appliance that you might find in anyone's home. The people that the book talks about are the people who are responsible for this happening.

This particular book took me several times longer to read than just about any other book of equivalent size that I have opened in many many years. The reason for this is all of the times that I stopped reading due to the particular topic of discussion having brought back memories from my own involvement with computers in the late seventies and early eighties.

The book has several sections each dealing with a particular group of people who influenced the development into what we have today.

The first section deals with a group from MIT. These people were tsome of the members of the Tech Model Railroad Club and were the group who selected the word "hackers" to describe what they did. Their first hack was to convert a telephone system into a control system for their model railroad. They then went on to test the phone system. Some of these hacks allowed them to make free international calls but they convinced themselves that they were not breaking the law because they were only doing it to see what security holes that the phone system contained.

Fronm phones they moved on to computers and locks. They needed a way past the locks in the building in order to have access to the parts they needed to keep the computer running (at least that was their excuse).While not all of their activities were legal, these were the people responsible for some of the biggest advances in computing in the nineteen fifties. They redesigned computer hardware to work better and came up with all sorts of algorithmns they could use to make their software smaller and more efficient.

The second section of the book moves forward to the seventies where new groups of hackers were finding ways to build their own computers. This section of the book has significant coverage of two of the best known names relating to computers. One of these is Bill Gates who developed a version of Basic to run on the first home computer kit that was ever produced and the issues he had when one of the hackers appropriated an almost finished copy of it to distribute free which affected the royalties that Bill was expecting to receive and which started the debate on whether software should be free (a debate which Bill eventually won).The other well known person this section mentions is Steve Wozniac whose Apple ][ computer was the first offered for sale as a complete system rather than as a kit and which set the standard for what was to come.

I found this section of the book particularly interesting since thePhysics department at the University of NSW brought several Apple }{ computers into Australia from the USA several months before the first Computerland store opened here to sell them to the general public and I was one of a small group of students who helped test the course that was to be introduced as a separate subject the following year. As such I was one of the very first people in Australia to write programs on the Apple ][.

The third section of the book covers the area of computer gaming which rapidly developed on the newly available microcomputers of various sorts in the late seventies and early eighties (before Compac produced the first IBM PC compatible computer and standardised the computer architecture). Many of the names of the people this section talks about were not familiar to me but a number of the games that they produced brought back many memories (even though I didb't actually play many of them myself as I was more interested in programming the computers than in playing games on them).

This is a very significant book in that it reports on what is now probably of far greater importance than it would have seemed at the time. Had Steven Levy not gone to the trouble of interviewing many of the people who were actually involved in order to produce this record of these events then much of this history may have been lost forever. While not everyone may be interested enough in the history of computers to appreciate this book, they all still benefit from the fact that this book with its record of many of the significant events in the development of computers.

I for one would like to thank the author for refreshing my memory of the ivory tower IBM mainframes (such as the one that the Maths department at UNSW had when I was there on which I got to finally run some of the Fortran I had taught myself prior to ever being able to access a computer to try it out), the more flexible hands on DEC PDP computers (that the hackers themselves helped develop, one of which was available in the Engineering department of UNSW and on which I learnt to program in Pascal). I particularly want to thank him for the memories it brought back to me of working with various different Apple }{ computers (originally with only cassete recorders for storage) where I got to both help out in testing a new course that was offered the following year and where those of us involved used to frequently go at other times where we used the computers to create programs of our own (I never did get my submarine game to work properly). Probably my most successful program on the Apple ][ was a payroll program that I wrote after my father started selling computers and which ended up being used by quite a few small businesses in the early eighties (I still have a couple of dozen copies of the manual).

For those who didn't get involved with computers until after the period covered in this book the information presented here will demonstrate just how different that computers were even as recently as the nineteen eighties and just how much is owed to those whose interest in computers through that period led to the computers (and game machines) that are common in many households today.

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