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Engines of the Mind: The Evolution of the Computer from Mainframes to Microprocessors Paperback – February 17, 1996


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Upd Sub edition (February 17, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393314715
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393314717
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 5.4 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,182,302 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An authoritative history of what has become the prehistory of the computer industry: pre-PC. It's particularly strong in its treatment of the creation of ENIAC.

From Publishers Weekly

Shurkin traces the history of the computer, starting with earlier groundbreaking advances in mechanics and mathematics and tracing the construction of the first computer at the University of Pennsylvania during WW II.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By "condorcet2" on November 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
The very first sentence of this book is "This book is about people, not machines". Well, that's fine for me, but I find it difficult to apprehend what these people have done without a minimum of information about the machines. By this, I mean more than just enumerating the size, weight and number of components of each machine! The big flaw in this this book is the lack of (clear) description of what each individual cited has brought to the development of computers. For example, describing the post WWII period, the author states "Turing's design was that far ahead of everyone else's. Even von Neumann's machine lacked some of the sophistication of Turing's, which has had a profound influence on the fastest and largest of modern computers.(footnote 4 p212)" Unfortunately, there is not a single word explaining what this design was, or the influence it had! The author prefers spending time explaining that "(Von Neumann) enjoyed sex, for the pleasure of it, but without emotional involvement.(p 179)"... Another example: the chapter on "flip-flops" is utterly unintelligible if you have not read the excellent book "CODE - The hidden language of computer hardware and software" by Charles Petzold. In summary, I am very disappointed by this book, I would rather recommend anyone to read Petzold's one!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By D. W. Casey on July 13, 1998
Format: Paperback
I have read over 50 books on the subject of computers in the last year (I am a computer trainer), and the book I put at the very top of this list is Joel Shurkin's Engines of the Mind. The book is a look at the early development of computers, and contains particularly fascinating portraits of Charles Babbage, Herman Hollerith, Eckert and Mauchly, and John von Neumann. It is an excellent history of computers from Babbage to the 1960s; my understanding is that it was not the author's intent to address PCs in the book. I usually recommend this book to people along with Robert Cringeley's Accidental Empires -- Shurkin's book as the "pre-PC" book, and Cringeley's as the "post-PC" book. Shurkin's book is extremely well written, and well worth reading.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Alan A. Donovan on January 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book really covers the history of computer engineering from 1945-1965, between the first practical computer, and IBM's dominance.
It does give a good insight into the extensive history and heritage of the first real computers, the UNIVACs. It's easy these days to be fooled into feeling that history begins around 1969 with UNIX, and this book is helpful in illuminating the "Dark Ages".
The preamble sections about Babbage, and about computing prehistory, are interesting too, but a little disconnected from the later stuff (as indeed they were, historically).
However, I have a couple of complaints. Firstly, the book is in desperate need of a thorough proof-reading: the technical details have mostly been relegated to footnotes, but are frequently wrong in obvious ways, or consist of unhelpful analogies, and give the impression that the author has little scientific knowledge. The final chapter repeats, verbatim, sections of earlier ones, and is clearly tacked on (for a better coverage of the 70s-80s, read Steven Levy's "Hackers").
Secondly, there is very little computer science history in the book: no reference to Post, Turing (except as an engineer) or Church, or to their work of the 30s. (Read Andrew Hodges' "Turing..." for this); nor serious technical discussions of the subject matter covered. There is also no mention anywhere of FORTRAN or Lisp which were critical innovations occuring in the late 50s, the same timeframe as this book.
I guess "the History of UNIVAC" wouldn't have been such a catchy title.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Fred on January 2, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I recently read this book and "Computer : A History of the Information Machine" (The Sloan Technology Series) by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray(Contributor). Between the two books you get a fairly thorough treatment of the events that led to the modern computer and the historical development of these machines. "Engines of the Mind" is much more focused on the people that are behind the story, and less focused on the businesses and theory of computing that those individuals helped advance.
Mr. Shurkin starts his novel at the beginning, quite literally, walking through early usage of numbers and counting through the development of modern numbers. Anyone familiar with early history will recognize the tale, although some interesting insights are provided. He then walks us through a fairly detailed treatment of Charles Babbage, and even describes fairly well the theory behind the development of his Difference Engine. We are then walked through the development of punch card machines to aid the US in post Civil War censuses, which leads to Hollerith's founding Tabulating Machine Co. which would become IBM. Shurkin focuses on the individuals that developed these main frames, so we then spend some time on ENIAC and its many offspring. Here the author starts to diverge into a somewhat personal discussion of who was the "real" founder of the mainframe, and thus the computer. The author does a good job of saying he does not believe Von Neumann's claims to be this father, and that Atanasoff's claims appear fictitious as well. Regardless of who 'wins' this argument, it would have been nice to know more of the author's own background in order to understand whether or how he was biased.
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