45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2010
This book is a history of the beginning, growth and rise of the use of computers by people outside of the big businesses and governments that worked to create them in proprietary silos. This 25th anniversary edition of Steven Levy's classic book retains its detailed and interesting chronicle of the events that brought computing power to the masses. It also records some of the problems, pitfalls, and failures along the way. Here you will find many names that computer lovers are sure to recognize from Bill Gates to Richard Stallman as well as many that are not as well known, but that deserve to have their victories recorded also.
I greatly appreciate that this book exists. To be honest, it wasn't always a fun read. That isn't a commentary on the quality of the writing, but rather on the ups and downs of the narrative. There were times when I found myself wishing I was there in the middle of the action and other times when I had difficulty knowing who to root for. There were still other moments when I found myself cringing as I read about events long past, wishing that different decisions had been made or disappointed at the actions and attitudes of geniuses.
I'm not going to spoil the book for anyone interested by giving out specific details. All I'll say here is that the story begins with a bunch of model railroaders who love technology and who fall in love with a computer they discover they may access freely in an out of the way room in a building at MIT in the late 1950s. They took their love of piecing together technological gadgets in imaginative and creative ways (hacks) and applied it to this new tool / toy. The story follows their exploits and adventures through the 1960s en route to a second wave of hackers in Northern California in the 1970s who take the love home, creating machines on a smaller budget that could be used by ordinary people. Hot on their heels were another group of Californians who led a third wave, hacking software to do things never before dreamed of and leading the way to the commercialization of the computer. The book ends with a series of afterwards, one written when the book was first published in 1983, another written 10 years later, and another just added to this newly published edition. Each adds details and commentary to the history that were not known at the time of the original interviews and research.
If the history of hacking, free and open source software and the attitudes embodied in the current movement interest you, you will appreciate this book greatly.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2001
I am a senior engineer for network security operations, who when nine years old in 1980 started computing on a Timex-Sinclair ZX-80. I probably first heard the term "hacker" when "War Games" was released in 1983. I read Steven's book because it is an early but enlightening account (first published in 1984) of the Hacker Ethic.
Consider: in a closed, self-policed environment, like the computer labs of the 1960s and early 1970s, freely sharing information makes sense. In an open, under-policed environment, like the modern Internet, deviants abuse the Hacker Ethic. Well-intentioned "white hats" may explore the phone system purely to understand its operation, but evil-minded "black hats" abuse the same knowledge to make free long distance calls. Does this mean information should be confined? No -- full disclosure is still the best way to counter black hat activity.
Steven lays the groundwork for these thoughts, and serves up gems from hacker history. His 1970s quote from Popular Electronics editor Les Solomon is the earliest reference I know linking hacking to kung fu: "The computer is...an art form. It's the ultimate martial art." Steven also shares tales of Sierra On-Line, Apple Corp., Homebrew Computer Club, the Altair, and even Bill Gates' 1975 rant against software piracy.
"Hackers" will make you appreciate your unlimited access to the machine on which you're reading this review. Hackers of the 1960s and 1970s would have given their first born child to possess the power and availability of modern PCs; now we take PCs for granted, like indoor plumbing or refrigeration!
Those who lived the early days of PCs will enjoy Steven's trip down memory lane. Those who are younger will discover the true meaning of the word "hacker" -- one who promotes access, freedom, decentralization, meritocracy, art, and joy through computers.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
To find out how you got to where you're at, you often have to look at where you came from. In the world of computers, that means going back to the late 1950's to observe the mindset and personalities that shaped the growth of the personal computer. Steven Levy has what could be considered the best analysis of those individuals in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition. Yes, it's been 25 years since since this book was first published in 1985. But it's as relevant now as it was then. I read this book quite some time ago and enjoyed it immensely. My enjoyment with rereading it hasn't diminished.
Part 1 - True Hackers - Cambridge - The Fifties and Sixties: The Tech Model Railroad Club; The Hacker Ethic; Spacewar; Greenblatt and Gosper; The Midnight Computer Wiring Society; Winners and Losers; Life
Part 2 - Hardware Hackers - Northern California - The Seventies: Revolt in 2100; Every Man a God; The Homebrew Computer Club; Tiny BASIC; Woz; Secrets
Part 3 - Game Hackers - The Sierras - The Eighties: The Wizard and the Princess; The Brotherhood; The Third Generation; Summer Camp; Frogger; Applefest; Wizard vs. Wizards
Part 4 - The Last of the True Hackers - Cambridge - 1983: The Last of the True Hackers; Afterword - Ten Years Later; Afterword - 2010
Notes; Acknowledgments; About the Author
When you walk into a Best Buy or any other retailer today, you simply pick up the computer you want, head home, plug it in, and away you go. But when you go back to the beginning, you start to understand just how amazing these things are. Levy steps into the inner sanctums of the large mainframe computers, devices that cost millions of dollars and allowed few the privilege of touching them. But there were some who immediately understood the power and the vision, and they weren't going to be denied the opportunity to play, learn, and push the limits. Hackers goes from those who spent time re-engineering model railroad layouts to those who took that same drive to the world of bits and bytes. Everything was a challenge, what with virtually no memory and nothing much in the way of input/output devices. But even though their efforts weren't always appreciated or welcome, these hackers continued to lead the way to discover what *was* possible. As the mainframes continued to shrink, more and more individuals focused on what could be done if you put the CPU and memory together with a keyboard and screen. The Homebrew Computer Club was the birthplace of people like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who went on to form Apple and create the history of the personal computer. Levy also digs into the birth of the fast-paced world of computer gaming, when companies like Atari, Apple, Sierra, and others wrote computer games to push the boundaries of the ever-more-powerful personal computers, while also making the programmers literal superstars and millionaires. For those who had the right skills and the drive to learn, there was seemingly nothing they couldn't accomplish.
What makes the book shine, over and above the historical narrative, is the commentary and analysis of the hacker code and mentality. At the start, there was little financial gain to be found by writing code and building new devices to hook onto the computer. As such, the creed was that everything was open and information was to be shared. But as time progressed and companies started to form around software and hardware, it became harder to maintain that pure approach, and information started to become proprietary. Things once open and free came with price tags. People like Richard Stallman, the last "true hacker", railed against this "perversion" (as he still does today), but few follow him at the level of fanaticism he demands. But understanding his mindset helps to understand the philosophy behind open source software, where software is still free as in beer and free as in speech.
If you haven't read Hackers, either in the original or new edition, I would recommend it. It's a fascinating read.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 1999
Hackers is a watershed work... its ability to explain technical concepts is suitable for almost anyone, but its explanation of the human concept behind the early days of the computing industry -- WHY hackers were, not just WHAT they were -- is unparalleled except possibly in The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling. You might have thought you "knew" that the personal computer came from IBM, which it didn't, or from Apple, which it didn't. You might have thought even the term "hacker" meant a malicious attacker and destroyer of complex systems, when the opposite was and is true. No matter how much time you've spent in the industry, whether you're in hardware, software or management, this book will show you how much of what you thought you knew is wrong or incomplete. The players are three-dimensional, the strands linking the storylines are bright and strong, the tone isn't moralistic, and it shows clearly how not only the Hacker Ethic began and evolved, but gives us insight as to why it's still alive, well, relevant and NEEDED in an era of know-nothing suits, IPO-driven greed, and mindless hype. Buy it. Buy two. Buy three. Give them to your friends.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2000
I've owned this book for about 15 years, and have read it perhaps 30 or more times. The tale is familiar by now, but the storytelling is compelling, and the subject matter fascinating.
Hackers covers the computer revolution- from research lab to home- up to approximately 1984, right before the Commodore 64 took over as #1 home computer. Even though the book is a large one, Mr. Levy keeps the focus on a single winding narrative throughout. This makes the book interesting to read and relatively easy to follow, but unfortunately tends to leave out parts of the computer revolution that don't fit into his rigid outline.
The outline is as follows: hacking begins at MIT and spreads to Stanford, and we see the genesis of video games in Spacewar. A new movement sprouts in post-hippie California with the release of Intel's first 8-bit chips, and this movement- dedicated to homebrew and user-built systems- is the font from which the Altair and the Apple II spring. Finally, the narrative ends on the rise of game software companies- especially Sierra- on the strength of the Apple II's market share. There's also an epilogue on Richard Stallman. While other stories are recounted in short fashion along the way- John Harris' Sierra/Frogger/Atari story in particular- little is done to acknowledge the larger picture of the industry, whether it's universities outside of MIT and Stanford or Atari's massive rise to and fall from power.
Steven Levy writes much like Tom Wolfe circa-"Right Stuff", and the overall theme and feel of the book is the same as much of Tom Wolfe's books- an expose of a (then) little understood sub-culture, written in an engaging fashion. Even Mr. Levy's use of coined words, phrases, and lingo is much like Tom Wolfe. Technical jargon will be introduced with a simple definition, and then used through the next few chapters either in an ironic fashion, or to let readers feel "in" with the scenario being written about. Bizarre wording and odd phrases also pop up- sometimes apparently for show- and are then repeated over and over. "Croseus Mode" is used over and over to refer to wealth- phrasing like this seems gratuitous and I find it jarring to read, but that's just a personal preference.
Much of the Apple portion of the book will be familiar for those who watched Pirates of Silicon Valley. Just like that TV movie, the book transcends the culture from which it arose, and is great reading for anyone interested in pop culture, sociology, business, or computers.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2001
If you're considering reading Hackers, by Steven Levy you're either a hacker wannabe, or maybe the real deal looking for a trip down random-access memory lane. Either way, Hackers is a well-written narrative version of the history of "hacking" - that is, figuring out how to make computers perform tasks, often by simple trial and error; from the early days at MIT in the late 50's through the microcomputer revolution in the eighties. Not only is it well-written and organized, it gives you just enough technical data to increase your understanding of the hackers' achievements, and doesn't drown you in jargon.
I read this as research for a writing project; I use computers, I like computers, but by the end of the book I was wrapped up in a world of people who are consumed by the curiosity of what a computer is capable of. All the of real people that Levy writes about are interesting and vibrant in their own peculiar ways. And all the description of ingenuity and innovation in the sake of a good hack really gets you inspired.
I'm sure there are people who will take issue with Levy's selective coverage of the machines covered, debatably skewed emphasis on the bookish quality of the MIT group versus the crazy, do-it-yourselfers at Stanford, etc., and all of the people covered are not shown in a uniform light. But if you love computers, and would like to read about some really interesting people who accomplish some pretty amazing things, then this is a book for you.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2004
Hackers, by Steven Levy, should be required reading for anyone who programs computers for a living. Starting from the late 1950s, when the first hackers wrote code for the TX-0 and every instruction counted, to the early 1980s, when computers fully entered the consumer mainstream, and it was marketing rather than hacking which mattered. Levy divides this time into three eras: that of the 'True Hackers,' who lived in the AI lab at MIT and spent most of their time on the PDP series, the 'Hardware Hackers,' mostly situated in Silicon Valley and responsible for enhancing the Altair and creating the Apple, and the 'Game Hackers,' who were also centered in California; expert at getting the most out of computer hardware, they were also the first to make gobs and gobs of money hacking.
The reason everyone who codes should read this book is to gain a sense of history. Because the field changes so quickly, it's easy to forget that there is a history, and, as Santayana said, "Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it." It's also very humbling, at least for me, to see what kind of shenanigans were undertaken to get the last bit of performance from a piece of hardware that was amazing for its time, but now would be junked without a thought. And a third takeaway was the transformation that the game industry went through in the early 80s: first you needed technical brilliance, because the hardware was slow and new techniques needed to be discovered. However, at some point, the hard work was all done, and the business types took over. To me, this corresponds to the 1997-2001 time period, with the web rather than games being the focus.
That's one of my beefs--the version I read was written in 1983, and republished, with a new afterword in 1993. So, there's no mention of the new '4th generation' of hackers, who didn't have the close knit communities of the Homebrew Computer Club or the AI lab, but did have a far flung, global fellowship via email and newsgroups. It would be a fascinating read.
Beyond the dated nature of the book, Levy omits several developments that I think were fundamental to the development of the hacker mindset. There's only one mention of Unix in the entire book, and no mention of C. In fact, the only languages he mentions are lisp, basic and assembly. No smalltalk, and no C. I also feel that he overemphasizes 'hacking' as a way that folks viewed and interacted with the world, without defining it. For instance, he talks about Ken Williams, founder of Sierra Online, 'hacking' the company, when it looked to me like it was simple mismanagement.
For all that, it was a fantastic read. The more you identify with the geeky, single males who were in tune with the computer, the easier and more fun a read it will be, but I still think that everyone who uses a computer could benefit from reading Hackers, because of the increased understanding of the folks that we all depend on to create great software.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2003
Don't read this book as an A to Z or a history book. Read it if you want to FEEL the beginning. Did you ever hack something? Ever flip a character bit in an early role-playing game? Ever write assembly code on a PDP-11? Ever own an Apple II? The three eras covered in this book really take you into the experience and give you a sense of what it was like in the early days of this industry. And Stephen Levy is a great writer. I read everything he writes cover to cover with ease and interest.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2006
I love books ABOUT computers! My husband is the computer guru while I just like what I can do on computers, from putting together web pages to making podcasts. He bought this book originally when it came out and left it on the table. I picked it up and started reading, and couldn't stop. I've read it at least 10 times, and I'm reading it again now. It's a fascinating book and very readable (humorous too) and I don't think a person necessarily has to be interested in computers to enjoy the stories and style of writing. I really liked the people in the book, and re-reading it is like visiting with old friends. True, I've never met them and never will, but it's like a well-read and beloved novel in that way, only better because these people lived and did great (or even just interesting) things.
Besides this book, I also love The Soul of a New Machine, and Cuckoo's Egg, and have read all three many times. I still have no interest in the inner workings of computers I must admit. As long as they work, I'm happy. I have a lot of respect for these hackers though, and through the years I've constantly tried to set people straight when they use the term "hackers" in a negative way.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2000
steven levy truly does a great job writing about computers from its beginnings as the domain of a very few select, perhaps nerdy, but extremely intelligent group of students and non-students at MIT to the explosion of personal computers in the 1980s. the book ends at 1984 (when it was first published), so it does not go into the internet boom, but up until that point it provides an extensive and also entertaining view of what was going on and who was making it all happen.
i highly recommend this book to everyone that wants to know the beginnings of our technology-driven society, whether you are technical minded or not. don't be discouraged by the talk of machines you may never have heard of or programming languages and hardware terms you're not familiar with -- these are important to the story, no doubt, but levy explains everything clearly from where the term 'hackers' orignated to why IBM 'hulking giants' were so disdained to what chip does what. and the main story being told is not in the machinery itself, but in the people.
the book reads like fiction. from the middle school genius kids who were openly accepted into the MIT hackers groups, to the cocky 19-year-old named bill gates who refused to share his code openly the way everyone else was doing with each other at the time, and to the 20-something millionaires of the gaming revolution in the 1980s, levy shows us what was happening but also gives us insight into what made these people who they were.
levy has done his research. with facts from extensive interviews, re-interviews, newspaper articles and other resources, he's managed to put together not just a story about the birth and 'growing up' of personal computing, but also show us the human spirit of these geniuses and artists. if you are at all interested in 'hacking' (whether computer-based or otherwise) this book will doubtless inspire you to spend sleepless nights working on your creations knowing that amazing things can happen when you put your mind to it.
as a woman, i'm only sorry that there weren't more women hackers to admire and look up to among all the men, but then, that's not a flaw of the book so much as a sad truth of history.
this book may be out of print, but it is not outdated, and well worth searching through a few used bookstores to find a copy. borrow mine if you must :)