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We tend to take computers for granted these days, so much so that we don’t even think of them as computers. Your smartphone has processing power that would have been unthinkable in such a small package even a few short decades ago. How did we get to this point?
It turns out, the story is an interesting one. Whether you’re looking to know more about what led to the present of you’re just looking for some imminently readable non-fiction, these books are absolutely worth a look.
If you’ve ever wanted to trace the path from electricity to your laptop, this might be the best book to do it. Starting with Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and moving through the modern web, The Innovators hits nearly every major stop along the way.
No book that covers this large a period of time could include a deep dive into every player in the game, but this one does a good job trying. As a rough overview and introduction to the history of personal computing, this is one of the better starting points.
Where The Innovators is a high-level look at the subject of personal computing, Fire in the Valley takes you right into the trenches. This book was originally published in 1984, before the personal computer was anything like it is now. Fortunately, the authors have updated it over the years, with the most recent edition published in 2014.
This won’t help you understand how electricity turns into 1s and 0s and then to the images on your screen, but it will give you an in-depth history of how much work it took to get computers to do what most people would consider valuable work.
Author Steven Levy has written several very readable books on technology in addition to his other writing for outlets like Wired, but Hackers remains my favorite of his. The book covers a wide swath of computing, with more of a focus on larger computers housed in universities and other institutions than other books on this list.
If nothing else, this book is worth reading due to how it covers the difference in mindset between the east coast hackers and the west coast hackers. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read the book.
4. iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It
I know this is an article about books about computing and technology, but one of the most interesting things about iWoz is how much of the book isn’t about technology. Yes, Steve Wozniak built the original Apple and Apple II, and in doing so had a significant impact on the world, but that’s not all he did.
Wozniak also had a hand in developing the first universal remote control, organized a few music festivals, and did a whole lot of other things, and that’s just talking about his career. The opening chapters of this book, which cover Wozniak designing computers despite having zero access to the chips they’d theoretically use, easily make it worth whatever price you pay.
I’ll be honest: This is the most business-heavy of these books, but it’s still worth reading because this is how we got from proprietary computer models to the modern desktop PC. The next time you open your computer to pop in a new SSD or graphics card, know that without Compaq’s early work (and legal precedents), you might not be able to do this.
The story is interesting enough that it served as the basis for the first season of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which should be required viewing for anyone interested in the lead-up to modern computing. Even though the show is largely fictional, its basis in real events, like those described in this book, give it a solid foundation.