I grabbed a copy of “l’ordinateur, une histoire de l’informatique” (or in english: the computer: an illustrated history)at the public library and just finished the journey through some 650 years of computing lead by Mark Frauenfelder.

The book presents and describes all the important technical discoveries achieved along the centuries in order to, one day, create the first machine able to process, memorize and display information to a user.
The first chapter goes as far back as 30 000 BC and covers the early ways of computing and rendering numbers and then, over two intense chapters, focuses on the early works that would later lead to computing : the works of Napier, Schickard, Pascal, von Leibniz, Boole and Babbage.
Follow the works of geniuses of the XX century with Alan Turing and Shannon, the supercomputers like the Colossus. This chapter also relates the birth of IBM and the giant leap of the technology achieved during WWII.
And then comes the time to give everyone a computer, Frauenfelder extensively describes all the models that succeeded to each other during the 70s : the PARC, Apple, IBM, smaller companies and even magazines selling instructions on how to build your own PC as well as all the linked discoveries : the graphical interface, the mouse, the floppy and then the CDRom, etc. Almost rom the beginning of the PC era, computers were used both for working and playing and the following chapter, dedicated to the history of video games and consoles, relates the success of companies like Atari, Nintendo and, here again, Microsoft.
Now that every one went digital, it is time to mention Internet. Frauenfelder relates the invention, not only of the Internet architecture, but most of all of the WWW and the quick acceptance of this new communication medium by the world.
The book ends with a chapter dedicated to prototypes of new interfaces between users and machines, small devices, robots, etc.

Being born in 1982, my introduction to computing consisted into playing some Kung-Fu game on my father’s first computer, an Apple II I believe. That machine gone, I didn’t use another until the family bought a 386 machine in the mid-90s. I’ve then discovered Dos, Windows 3.1, 95 and 98 mostly as a gamer (I was a big fan of the Lucas Arts adventure games). I first installed Linux in 1998 and effectively switched in 2003 even though I use XP as well.

This book was a great sum up for me of the steps it took to create the computer that we now so commonly use. It is fascinating to see how fast the technology evolved in the XX century, especially during the 70s where the emerging market was boosting very young companies like Apple and Microsoft to invent everyday. Probably that the most interesting part though is the one regarding the earlier discoveries, the legacy of men like Boole or Babbage. That’s the part of the story that we are less familiar with. One thing for sure, computers were created by passionate people who dedicated their talent and their lives to create this “tool” even though, none of them, could imagine what computers would end up being able to do. On that aspect, the evolution from the 70s to the 90s is incredible. From a computer that could barely be used a text processor we moved on to portable devices that we can use to carry our voice and image throughout the world in real time and index the knowledge of humanity.

In short, I recommend the book to any computer interested person who is not already aware of how computer came to be. By the way, the book is surprisingly cheap on Amazon.fr for such a big illustrated book (13 euros).

Filed under: Computing, Real World

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  1. Trackback on Samantha Halfon on June 14, 2008 at 3:48 pm

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  2. Trackback on samantha on June 14, 2008 at 5:48 pm

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    photo of Samantha Halfon Samantha Halfon
    Software Engineer
    blueKiwi software
    Paris, France
    I enjoy playing with my computer(s), listening to Bob Dylan (and related artists) and watching movies (especially if they were directed by Martin Scorsese or John Cassavetes). Sometimes, I play a little guitar... If not doing any of the above, I am either riding a small red bike around Paris, or, making videos. About my videomaking please check out World Wide Angle and its blog.