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The Universal Machine: From the Dawn of Computing to Digital Consciousness 2012th Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-3642281013
ISBN-10: 364228101X
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Editorial Reviews

Review

From the reviews:

Selected by Computing Reviews as one of the Best Reviews & Notable Books of 2013

“The Universal Machine follows the development of computers, as it says in the subtitle, ‘From the dawn of computing to digital consciousness.’ … On the whole, the historical content was at just the right level – enough to keep you interested without getting overwhelmed. … The Universal Machine is a great way to get a real feel for where the machines that are at the centre of so many of our lives came from.” (Brain Clegg, Popular Science, June, 2012)

“An interesting and reasonably priced book, which concentrates on some of the people (from Ada to Zuse), companies (from Apple to Xerox) and machines (from the Acorn to the Z1) that have contributed to computer development. … The book contains plenty of references … as well as a ‘Further Reading’ section. … it appeals to a wide audience, and at over 350 pages there is something in here for anyone who has the vaguest interest in a history of computers including the internet … .” (Mike Rees, BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT, August, 2012)

“This book starts with Charles Babbage and ends with the US military’s latest Reaper drones, tracing a fascinating history of the development of computers and computer science from the Regency and Victorian eras to the present day. … it’s accessible and readable even to non-geeky types, written as it is in an easy-going and engaging style. … it’s also an enjoyable read for hard-core techies: you’ll almost certainly keep running into computers and engineers you haven’t heard of before.” (Paul Ducklin, Naked Security, August, 2012)

“Watson … traces the history of computing from Babbage’s difference engine to the monolithic computers of the 1950s, to PCs and Macs, to mobile technology. … The work is heavily illustrated with … photographs of people, machines, and simple diagrams. … structured as an encyclopedia with brief essays of up to 2,000 words on topics arranged thematically into 14 chapters. … provides an easily accessible big picture of computing history that is both comprehensive and introductory. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and general readers.” (S. M. Frey, Choice, Vol. 50 (7), March, 2013)

From the Author

I passionately believe that the computer is like no other invention in human history. As Alan Turing, its inventor, realized in the 1930s, the computer is a Universal Machine - capable of doing any task for which it is programed.  I thought I knew the history of computing when I started writing this book, but I learnt so much in the process and got to know some really fascinating people along the way. I therefore invite you to take the plunge and learn more about the history of computing and the people that made it possible.
    Once the history is out of the way we've got to consider the future, since computers will have an even greater role to play there. Although I work in AI I guess I'm too focused on my team's immediate goals to often look at the big picture, which writing this book made me do. In the last two chapters you'll learn how you're going to become even more dependent on computers and how, one day, computers and humans may become one and the same.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 353 pages
  • Publisher: Copernicus; 2012 edition (May 23, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 364228101X
  • ISBN-13: 978-3642281013
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,907,708 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
What I really like about this book is that it covers the whole history of computing from Victorian times to the present day. I can't think of another book that does this so well. There are many individual books that cover parts of this story in depth - but do you really need to read 600 pages about Steve Jobs or a whole book just about Facebook! The author has done a great job taking each topic and highlighting the most important parts and writing individual chapters that capture a time and a place but without too much unnecessary detail.
The books opens with a fascinating chapter about the first steampunk, Charles Babbage, and his failed attempts to build a mechanical computer. Much of this story was new to me and very interesting. A short chapter follows that has lots of fascinating details, not about computers, but early business machines that have influenced our computers and in several cases gave rise to modern companies like IBM.
Chapter 4 is really the heart of the book telling the tragic story of the English genius Alan Turing. He invented the concept of the "universal machine," and the author doesn't avoid presenting some complex mathematical ideas here. However, he does so in a very approachable and easy to understand way and I found myself understanding what a Turing machine was for the first time and why this is the idea at the heart of the computer. Turing's work code breaking during WWII is described in detail, as his subsequent appalling treatment by the British after the war.
I recently tried to read Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson, which in contrast to this book I found boring and very hard to read. This book covers some of the same material but in a much more entertaining and approachable way.
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Any book on computing history that misses Zuse-- the 1938 inventor of Tron, the Matrix, The 13th Floor, Avatar... and many other world views that posit the universe running inside a big computer-- hasn't done it's homework.

Although the two page (80-82) summary on Zuse isn't long, it is accurate and detailed. I mean, who else would try to build a 30,000 part computer in a barn in Nazi occupied Germany? Not many figured out the genius of this man, from computing to cellular automata, but Siemens obviously did (they bought him out before he passed on in 1995).

Does anyone know how this fine book can be under $5 with free Prime shipping at nearly 400 packed pages? I know, I've got to be dreaming-- somebody unplug the link.

Wow, even at text prices it's worth it, here, it's a steal! It is "Dover" priced yet contains CURRENT information-- the "history" goes back to the Middle Ages, but brings us right up to everything from dedicated embedded to universal multis and beyond. NOT a dry read-- fun, carries the reader along, and if you've got a few years behind you as I do, will elicit a smile at where we've been as well as where we're going. After all, there really was no web in 1985, so many people alive today saw nearly the entire evolution of the modern computer age!

In that context, it's great to see the "seeds" going way back, as well as Tron and the Matrix. Zuse's first machine was perfect and correct, but didn't work because the milling and machining sciences were not developed enough for the precision required. (We know this because it WAS later built just to see, and worked!).
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I enjoyed this book covering the history of computers and their current significance and possible advances in the future but I was disappointed with its lack of technical detail like there was no description at all of Turning's proof that you can't determine whether any programs will stop. Also, how Turning proved that his machine was universal. The author probably felt these were not appropriate in a book for a general audience.
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Format: Paperback
Let's make one thing clear: this is not an academic text, although heaven knows the author is eminently qualified and has several published texts to his credit. This book explains the historical quirks and coincidences that ultimately led to the development of the machine that is now an integral part of just about everyone's life. You'll be surprised by the simple twists of fate that helped to create the Universal Machine - and which made some most unlikely people multi-millionaires. While pure scientific thought undeniably played a significant part, there was a good deal of lateral thinking involved as well. How else could warfare and tea houses co-exist in a single history? The people involved are fascinating too - from an aristocratic lady of the Victorian era, to a gifted but tragic man with a passion for long-distance running, and an assortment of academic dropouts who'd have been branded failures had they not had entrepreneurial gifts that turned their dreams into reality. The story is both enthralling and entertaining, and the author does not shrink from examining the negative implications as we advance towards an integration with technology that some will inevitably find disturbing. We can't turn the clock back, but there will come a time when technology will force mankind to make some difficult choices. We need to start thinking about the impact now, and this book will, hopefully, spark some serious debate. Ian Watson knows the debate must be taken outside of academia, and this book is intended to do just that.
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