How can a book about the birth of a new computer possibly be of
interest to somebody who is not a computer freak? Well, this book
is about passion. Not the passion between a man and a woman, but
rather the passion that some men have for their work. Its subject
is the people who design and build computers, not the computer
The author of The Soul of a New Machine worked as an "embedded
reporter" in the team that developed Data General's first 32-bit
computer back in 1979, the "Eagle".
There was a lot of turbulence in the computer industry around that
time. (This is always the case, thanks to Moore's
Law.) Minicomputers were just starting to have
an impact on IBM's dominance and business model. The
industry was jokingly referred to as "IBM and the seven dwarfs".
Until that time, computers were typically
"mainframes" run by those large organizations that could
afford them. They were usually controlled by a computer department,
where users could submit "jobs" and receive the results
in the form of printouts a few hours later. During the 1970s, access
through remote terminals became popular, and I can remember how
impressed I was when one of my colleagues at Swedish Space Corporation
was able to edit programs and submit jobs to a computer in downtown
Stockholm from the terminal in his office.
A major upheaval occurred when Digital Equipment
Corp. (DEC) launched its series of VAX 32-bit minicomputers in the
late 1970s. Suddenly, smaller organizations and individual departments
in larger companies could afford to acquire their own computers,
and run them under their own control. In just a few years, the market
for minicomputers exploded. - Data
General was the second largest manufacturer of minicomputers,
and its 16-bit minicomputers had been quite successful. However,
the company had failed in its development of a 32-bit contender,
had had quality problems and was facing massive defections of its
customers to DEC. On top of this, there was internal rivalry between
its development organizations in South Carolina and Massachusetts.
The book tells the story of how the project manager,
West, managed to sell the company's founder Edson de Castro
on the need to develop a 32-bit computer as a backup to the main
effort underway in South Carolina. Approval was given under rigid
restrictions. At the same time, he had to assemble a development
team and convince its members that the work was technically pioneering
and challenging at the highest level, despite the restrictions,
and that it would reach the production stage if succcessful.
West gathered a few seasoned veterans in his team,
but most of the members were newly hired graduates straight out
of college. It appears that this was a deliberate strategy to ensure
enthusiasm and dedication to the project among team members in the
face of an impossible deadline, meagre resources and technical restrictions
imposed by top-level management.
What followed was an intense effort in a pressure
cooker environment filled with 80-hour work weeks. The book describes
the inevitable crises that beset the project and how they were overcome.
Ultimately, the project was crowned with success. It came at a cost:
many members suffered from a disrupted social life and the phenomenon
known as "burn-out" (which nowadays has become a catchphrase
for all kinds of real and imagined ailments). But the book is above
all a celebration of the passion that drives these young engineers.
Right at the end, there is a poignant epilogue:
"At the end of the presentation for the
sales personnel in New York, the regional sales manager got up and
gave his troops a pep talk. - 'What motivates people?' he asked.
He answered his own question, saying: 'Ego and the money to buy
things that they and their families want.'
It was a different game now. Clearly, the machine
no longer belonged to its makers."
The book is very well written, and it won a Pulitzer
prize. Of course, there is a tendency to dramatize and simplify
in order to make the book attractive to a wide audience, but nothing
that "tends to belittle the complexity of our profession"
- a phrase that has stuck in my mind from a review of a completely
different book. Furthermore, Kidder does a commendable job of explaining
technical issues to a lay audience.
Re-reading the book today, 25 years after it was
published, brings back fond memories of some episodes in my own
professional life. One is the playfulness of the engineers. A rudimentary
form of programming without access to a computer became available
when the HP-67 scientific calculator was launched in 1976. A little
later, microcomputers started to replace typewriters. They offered
a platform for Basic programming and for simple text-oriented games
such as Adventure. ("You are in a
twisty maze of passages, all alike.")
Later, when we got a VAX system, we used to play Snake
in the evenings - a simple graphics game built on ASCII characters.
When the Commodore-64 became available in 1982, I started programming
and playing games at home for a while.
What in particular brings me into resonance with
the book, however, is two episodes, two comparatively short periods
when I was involved in intense technical development at Swedish
Space Corporation (SSC): the perfection of an Image
Analysis System (IAS) delivered by MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA)
in 1979, and the development within SSC of the EBBA
image analysis system, hosted on microcomputers, which culminated
What is it that seems to make many scientists and engineers, in
particular, so dedicated to their work?
According to Gibran, work
has a spiritual dimension. All work done with love is blessed. -
And what is it to work with love?
"It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your
heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved
were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit."
"Work is love made visible."
This is a poetic and moving description of what many people experience,
even when the work itself may be routine. But I think that it misses
an essential part of what makes work enjoyable: "All work
and no play makes for a very dull day", as the saying goes.
Working with computers, and with advanced technology in general,
has an element of playfulness in it that I think lies right at the
core of what makes us human. Playfulness is an important characteristic
of human culture, as the Dutch humanist and historian Huizinga argued
in his book Homo
This brings to mind a Swedish film, "De
lyckliga ingenjörerna" ("The Happy Engineers"),
which documented the development and successful launch in 1986 of
our first satellite, Viking. The title can be interpreted
as an expression of envy - or perhaps as reflecting a slightly condescending
attitude to engineers, thought to be working in a certain isolation
from "the real world".
Which reminds me of this literary masterpiece by Hans Botwid:
|Runt kring stora solen
smyger lilla jorden,
darrande och skygg.
|Men på skygga jorden
trallande och trygg.
|which roughly translates as:
||Around big Sun
little Earth tiptoes,
trembling and shy.
|But on shy Earth
singing and secure.
I think we can assume that, just like so many engineers, Jonson
has managed to turn his hobby into his profession! :-)