APRIL-JUNE 2007 (Vol. 29, No. 2) pp. 74-77
1058-6180/07/$31.00 © 2007 IEEE
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
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T.F. Peterson, Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT, MIT Press, 2003, 178 pp., $19.95, ISBN 0-262-66137-3.
This glimpse into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famous "hacker" culture showcases more than a century of silliness on the MIT campus. In an important, albeit lighthearted, study of MIT and its engineering culture, this book supplements an earlier book by Brian Leibowitz covering much the same topic— The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT, MIT Museum, 1990—and a second book, Is This the Way to Baker House? Most of the material in these two books is covered in this latest book but in a more conversational (and less technically detailed) approach.
Hacking as used here is a term and activity of approbation at MIT, the practice of campus shenanigans a long-tolerated outlet for the intelligence and creativity of its students for politely confounding existing authority structures. The pranks and hacks shown and described in this book are a combination of an endearingly innocent, frequently-Dada-ist worldview (with its attendant sense of the absurd) and the haute technique of the rigorous (indeed, brutally) mathematical basis of studies at MIT.
For certain students, hacks and pranks are at once a way to blow off steam by tweaking the nose of school administrators and a way to flex one's engineering muscles in front of one's peers by doing the seemingly impossible (like putting a cow on a roof or converting a building lobby into a cathedral, complete with stained glass windows and pipe organ).
This book will amuse and entertain—but mostly MIT graduates, I fear. Not being one of those august few, I found myself feeling a bit of an outsider in terms of understanding why some of the pranks were considered funny; similarly, hacks that relied on their locations and interrelationships on campus for their comic value mean that only those familiar with the campus will find it amusing.
Nonetheless, this is an important snapshot of MIT and its engineering culture. Readers will enjoy the philosophy of hacking as expressed in a final section of the book entitled "The Zen of Hacking." Here you will find essays on MIT hacks from MIT president Charles Vest, Richard Feynman, and other professors and hackers, most of which explain that hacking is one of the highest forms of creative expression for engineers—something undertaken purely for the technical challenge and which brings out many positive human qualities.
Given MIT's role in shaping computer history, it helps to understand how this officially sanctioned silliness can channel the energies of often-unfocused youth into positive projects. It also helps to understand how the dedication students show in planning and executing such hacks is carried forward by MIT grads into the workplace where their creative talents flourish and influence the world around us.
Computer History Museum
Steve Wozniak with Gina Smith, iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, 312 pp., $25.95, ISBN 13: 978–0–393–06143–7, ISBN 10: 0–393—06143–4 (hardcover).
This is a rambling, charming, extremely detailed personal memoir that records the author's life from 1950 to 2005. Although clearly put together from many long recitations of recollections, it is fun to read.
The author has four purposes: to record the story of his life, to pay homage to his mentors, to set the record straight, and, probably most importantly, to stimulate young people whose engineering interests and talents are at least a little like his. They should follow their hearts, go for it, and start inventing alone. In this respect it is somewhat like the Tom Swift Jr. books that Steve Wozniak—better known as Woz—remembers as early stimulants.
Unfortunately there is no index; an inexcusable omission today. The glossary explains some of the electronic and computer terms that he uses in language appropriate to a clever high school student.
In his youth, Woz was a prodigy, encouraged into electronics by his electronic engineer father. Bored by high school, he engaged in pranks. At college his pranks were black and blue boxes to make free long-distance telephone calls. Here he hooked up with Steve Jobs, who showed him that the boxes could be sold. After college he joined Hewlett-Packard, which he says was then a wonderful place for engineers.
He helped develop calculators and dabbled with early versions of the personal computer. He reunited with Jobs, left Hewlett-Packard, and together they founded Apple Computer. By early 1976 Woz had completed the design of the Apple I and the pair got their first big order. He recreates the heady atmosphere of the San Francisco Bay area of those days when a hundred tiny new and better computers bloomed on each new chip and then faded away. (Incidentally, Woz reveals that, in his mind, at that time the most important function for personal computers was to allow better and more elaborate computer games.)
As Apple roared ahead, going public in 1980, it developed teams, market studies, accounting rules, committees, and other impediments to quick-thinking, free-wheeling prankster inventors. Woz stayed on as a lone engineer, refused to rise to senior management, but continued on the Apple payroll with a tiny paycheck.
The now immensely rich Woz went into many things. He tried to organize benefit rock-concerts, taught a computer lab at a public school, survived three marriages, and returned to the University of California, Berkeley, for his fourth year (registering under my name) to get a degree in computer engineering.
The book succeeds in its basic aim: to give Wozniak's advice, with personal examples, about how a young engineer should go about changing the world. It corrects and amplifies, with names and dates, accounts of almost all the major computer events in which Woz participated. The major omission, from the standpoint of the history of computing, is a completely frank picture of the nature of his great business collaboration with Jobs.
I recommend the book as an interesting story, as a corrective to some of the Apple history stories, but, most importantly, as a book for incipient young inventors to read under the covers by the light of their cell phones.
Rocky R. Clark
Arthur L. Norberg, Computers and Commerce: A Study of Technology and Management at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company, Engineering Research Associates, and Remington Rand, 1946–1957, MIT Press, 2005, 347 pp., $40.00, ISBN 0–262–14090–X.
Between 1946 and 1957, computer technology completed its primary development stage and matured into an industrial product. Before 1946, digital computer activity was only developmental, but after 1956 an entire industry began to flourish. Arthur Norberg explores the situation during this first decade following the construction of the ENIAC by centering on the example of two important companies: Engineering Research Associates Inc. (ERA) and Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company (EMCC). The focus of the book is to "illustrate what made this decade so important in the history of computing" (p. vii). Norberg describes the companies' technical achievements, analyzes their business strategies, and illustrates their interactions with their major funding partner, the US government. The story of EMCC and ERA is also connected to several celebrated names, among them Grace Hopper and William Norris.
The book is divided into five chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Chapter one relates the early history of ERA; chapters two and three describe the research of ERA and EMCC. Chapter four describes EMCC's struggle to succeed in delivering a quality product to market and the factors behind its decision to relinquish control to Remington Rand. Chapter five finally deals with this integration of EMCC and ERA into Remington Rand. Footnotes and sources take up about 60 pages.
ERA emerged from a US Navy division labeled OP–20–G that became known as Communications Supplementary Activity-Washington (CSAW). During World War II, the OP–20–G division was responsible for the reading and breaking of cryptographic codes. By the end of the war, CSAW had become increasingly dependent on both highly specialized electronic equipment and expert personnel. When budgets were cut for most military projects at war's end, the navy was worried that the agglomeration of talent in the CSAW team would be dispersed. By February 1945, team members Howard T. Engstrom, Ralph I. Meader, William C. Norris, and John Howard came up with a plan to create a private company and do work for the navy on a contract basis. John Parker, an investment banker and former head of Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation (NAC), provided the necessary start-up money. In January 1946, Engineering Research Associates was formed in Minneapolis (Minnesota) where Parker was based. ERA consisted of two groups: a set of investors (named the "financial group") and a group of about 50 technical people (the actual "Research Associates").
EMCC's founding story is somewhat simpler. Following a dispute over patent rights, J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, lead developers of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), resigned from the University of Pennsylvania in March 1946. In order to hasten on construction and soonest application in warfare, the ENIAC design had already been frozen in 1944. However, the researchers were aware of the machine's limitations and began plans on a more effective and efficient computer, later to be called EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer). The EDVAC also contained ideas sketched by John von Neumann, who joined Eckert and Mauchly for design discussions and wrote an internal document titled "Draft Report on the EDVAC." EMCC's first contracts came from the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), which was interested in automating many of the tasks involved in preparing the US census. This led to the construction of Binac (Binary Automatic Computer), a vast number of peripherals, and finally the development of the EDVAC II, later named Univac (Universal Automatic Computer).
Before ERA could concentrate on product development, its first contracts mainly consisted of surveying the contemporary field of computing for the navy. The navy provided the company with documentation and reports from other companies and granted ERA access to captured German documents on wire and tape recording systems. In August 1947, ERA began work on so-called Task 13, a project to design a general all-purpose stored-program computer for the navy. The project later resulted in a machine called Atlas, which was sold commercially as ERA 1101 (1101 being binary for 13). The historical contribution for which ERA is best known is the development of the first magnetic storage drums.
Norberg explains that, although research and development were at their peak, ERA's financial resources were too limited to bring the developed systems to a broad commercial base, one of the problems being that the need for software development had been underestimated. As a result, Remington Rand purchased ERA in 1952. In contrast, EMCC worked substantially on the creation of software. Mauchly has even been credited by Luis T. Pardo and Donald Knuth with the development of the first-high level programming language, called Short Code. "Short Code accepted algebraic equations as input in order to perform computational operations" (page 194). However, the company also got into financial problems and was acquired by Remington Rand in March 1950.
Both ERA and EMCC continued as relatively independent subdivisions inside Remington Rand. ERA focused on scientific and military customers, while Eckert and Mauchly's Univacs were sold to business customers. In 1955, Remington Rand merged with Sperry Gyroscope and the corporation was named Sperry Rand. The two subdivisions were then consolidated and became part of Sperry Rand's Univac division.
Notwithstanding the literature available on ERA and EMMC, Arthur Norberg reveals many facts that cannot be found elsewhere. I recommend this book for historians and researchers interested in this particular period. The work is the fruit of thorough research and should be part of any library or archive that aims to give comprehensive coverage of the history of computing. That said, one downside of the book is its sole concentration on EMCC and ERA. Because the global context is not described in the book, unfamiliar readers may find it difficult to isolate the most important points out of the mass of details. Still, the book is easy to read and provides a lot of references for further research.
International Computer Science Institute