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The Computer - An Illustrated History

Coffee table book for computer geeks?

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Book review Remember coffee table books? Glossy, well-produced art books that are never actually read, but left lying around to show how cultured you are.

This illustrated history of computing is such a book (it could make you look both techie and cultured, a good trick if you can pull it off), and it's almost big and solid enough to make into a real coffee table too (just screw on some legs).

The Computer

When there's the web, Google and Wikipedia, is there any need for such a book? Well, Frauenfelder has gone some way towards convincing me there is. If you don't know to look up Wilhelm Schickard (invented the calculating clock in 1623, the first adding machine, ahead of Blaise Pascal), you may not find his extensive entries in Wikipedia and Google - and finding the painting Frauenfelder reproduces may take a little longer still. He includes nice pictures of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper (and her bug) too, and even though I've read Vannevar Bush's As We May Think and know of his government work in WWII, I didn't realise he built a mechanical engine to solve differential equations, or that Claude Shannon was his pupil at MIT and helped maintain Bush's Differential Analyser. Good fun to dip into, then, and more family friendly than staring at Wikipedia on a computer.

But as Frauenfelder comes up-to-date, he is less successful. All the obvious names are covered - from scurrilous stories about Jobs and Wozniak, to Engelbart and the first mouse (which seems to have been made out of an offcut of 2x4 timber) - and space is limited. Nevertheless, a less conventional view would use Fred Brooks and System 370, or Frank Soltis and the AS/400 or iSeries, to represent IBM instead of Deep Blue (although System 360 does get a mention). Coming right up to date, we get Tomb Raider and the Matrix, the web and Electronic Textiles, and a "concept illustration of a nanomedicine robot using a laser beam to break up an abnormal blood clot" (six-legged spiders with ray guns). Oh, and while I'm being irritated, the straight text in this picture book (there is some) is in a small font, triple spaced. Why? If you're going to put text into a picture book (and I like text and this text is quite interesting), why make it hard to read?

So, in the end, it's a good attempt at an illustrated history of computing in the early stages, but in the end it's a rather sensationalist and conventionally meeja-friendly view of computers, rather than a serious history of the subject. But the illustrations are fun, I learned some things I didn't know, and it probably isn't targeted at computer geeks anyway. If you are the sort of person who likes lavish pictorial overviews of technical subjects this is the sort of book you'll like.

However, in absolute terms, you're probably better off reading a proper biography of Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing and looking at any pictures you fancy on the web. If you must have a printed anthology of computing, look out for Ted Nelson's Computer Lib/Dream Machines (Microsoft Press, rev. edition 1987: ISBN 0914845497) - but as far as I know it's out of print, so it's off to the second hand bookshops. Sorry.

The Computer, an illustrated history

Verdict: A coffee-table book. Quite good on history with some nice photos/paintings of some of the founders of computing, but less good on the present, and with a rather conventional take on the future of computing. It's really a book to give to your aunt when she asks, "but what do these computer things you play with actually do, darling?" But, while you're wrapping it up, maybe have a quick flick through first.

Author: Mark Frauenfelder

Publisher: Carlton Books

ISBN: 1844424596

Media: Book

List Price: £30:00

Reg price: £24.00

David Norfolk is the author of IT Governance, published by Thorogood. More details here.

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