Book Review: The Soul of a New Machine - Tracy Kidder

Book cover with circuitry design. I hate it when I DNF a book. But "Soul of a New Machine" is just dull.

It's sort of a hagiography of an obscure company which once made a 32 bit computer. All the men (and it seems to be mostly men) are in turns dull, agressive, or just dicks. As a sample quote:

Grinning, he went on: “We’re trying to maximize the win, and make Eagle go as fast as a raped ape.”

I completely see how staggering this book must have been on publication. The mix of fake-it-till-you-make-it and move-fast-and-break-things is pretty revolutionary for the time. But now it's a tedious and played out narrative. And it isn't like they're developing a "famous" computer.

So in the end you're left with the unremarkable story of some people who overworked themselves to build a new type of machine. There's no deep dive into the philosophy of what a computer can do or whether the industry made the right choices.

There are some diversions into the technology which are mildly curious for the tech historian - but there's never quite enough detail:

He felt that VAX was too complicated. He did not like, for instance, the system by which various parts of the machine communicated with each other; for his taste, there was too much protocol involved.

The brief forray into contemporary "hacker" slang was fun:

Hence the occasional complaint, “I’ve got a stack overflow.” “His mind is only one stack deep,” says an engineer, describing the failings of a colleague

But, in the end, it is just boring. The people involved are arses, the computer is lost to history, the late night hacks are nothing special. I got about half way through and just couldn't be bothered reading any more of it.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Soul of a New Machine - Tracy Kidder”

  1. said on

    @Edent I intereviewed one of the main characters, when he was trying to get KSR (Kendall Square Research) big! He came across as odd to me, and was incensed by my (a) actually interviewing him rather than passively listening (b) having some tech knowledge (c) having a shorter email address than him!

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  2. said on

    @Edent I read your review and immediately thought "who is this person and how have they managed to articulate my feelings about this book so precisely?"

    I sort of get why it's got a bit of a cult-like following, but it's just not interesting enough. None of the people are likable, and the challenges they're facing might be worth reading about, if only it were written for the right audience.

    As pop-comp-sci-history, it's neither illuminating nor entertaining.

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  3. Interesting that it’s aged so badly.

    I read the book not long after it came out, before Apple launched the Macintosh and when the IBM PC had only recently launched.

    There weren’t all that many of us working in computers of any sort at the time. I was a software engineer, my now-husband was a hardware engineer, and the point-of-sale computer systems we worked on were built from chips in the factory section of the building we worked on.

    We didn’t have social media, email, mobile phones, or really any way of connecting with the few other folks working in the “design and build from scratch” part of the computer industry.

    I was fascinated by the book as it portrayed my everyday life and that was validating in some ways. Even the casual sexism was very familiar - although that did seem to be getting better. (I found out many years later that IT had the highest proportion of women in around 1985 - from those dizzy heights, the situation has declined and is now worse than it was in around 1980 when I started).

    At the time, I think I recall that Data General was seen as a genuine competitor to the market leader DEC in the mini-computer market. We did not know that the whole mini-computer sector would be wiped out by personal computers and equivalent small Unix computers such as the Sun workstations that eventually also more or less got wiped out by personal computers.

    I enjoyed reading about how the work of folks creating a market leader in California had a lot of parallels in what we’d been doing in a tiny business in unexotic Bedfordshire.

    Maybe someone is writing a book about the everyday atmosphere of OpenAI that will seem as boring and pointless in 40 years time as you found this book this year.

  4. said on

    @Edent The Eagle actually was a pretty big deal at the time, as I recall. My dad worked in the industry in the early '80s and I remember him raving about it, though I don't think we ever actually had one. It sounds like the rise of the IBM PC ultimately killed it as it was CP/M based right when MS-DOS became the new hotness.

    None of this is intended as commentary on the book, which I also recall as being too dull to read.

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  5. I read the book probably 10 or so years ago, I don't remember being blown away by it but I did enjoy some of the technical aspects, that era of computing/mainframes and mini-computers are a curiosity to me as I never grew up with that world, it was always the PC. I'd not heard of Digital General either until I read this book.

    I am a sucker for historical computing books though, Hackers by Steven Levy being a particular favourite 🙂


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