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What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Hardcover – April 25, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Since much of the research behind the development of the personal computer was conducted in 1960s California, it might seem obvious that the scientists were influenced by the cultural upheavals going on outside the lab. Very few people outside the computing scene, however, have connected the dots before Markoff's lively account. He shows how almost every feature of today's home computers, from the graphical interface to the mouse control, can be traced to two Stanford research facilities that were completely immersed in the counterculture. Crackling profiles of figures like Fred Moore (a pioneering pacifist and antiwar activist who tried to build political bridges through his work in digital connectivity) and Doug Engelbart (a research director who was driven by the drug-fueled vision that digital computers could augment human memory and performance) telescope the era and the ways its earnest idealism fueled a passion for a computing society. The combustive combination of radical politics and technological ambition is laid out so convincingly, in fact, that it's mildly disappointing when, in the closing pages, Markoff attaches momentous significance to a confrontation between the freewheeling Californian computer culture and a young Bill Gates only to bring the story to an abrupt halt. Hopefully, he's already started work on the sequel. Agent, John Brockman.(Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Inside Flap
Thanks to the cunning of history and the wondrous strangeness of Northern California, the utopian counterculture, psychedelic drugs, military hardware and antimilitary software were tangled together inextricably in the prehistory of the personal computer. Full of interesting details about weird but not arbitrary connections, John Markoff's book tells one of the oddest--because truest--of California tales and thereby helps illuminate the still unsettled legacy of the Sixties.
--Todd Gitlin, author of Media Unlimited and The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage
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Top Customer Reviews
But the truth of those half-heard folktales from my youth is that nearly every concept in the personal computer predates all of this, in a delightfully picaresque tale that starts in the late 1950s and weaves together computers, LSD, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam War and dozens of characters.
John Markoff, veteran technology reporter for the New York Times, is the first to comprehensively tell this story in his new book What The Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Markoff, best known for Cyberpunk and Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, explodes the conventional notion that the PC replaced the mini-computer in the same way that the mini-computer replaced the mainframe -- by a sort of evolutionary selection within the computer business, by persistently investigating the roots of the PC its unsung pioneers, its user interface, and the culture of open-source software in the San Francisco drug and anti-war culture of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Markoff has painstakingly researched the men (and a few women) who populated the cutting edge of the computer revolution in 1960s San Francisco, capturing an oral history of the PC never before recorded. Central to "Dormouse" is the story of Doug Engelbart, the "tragic hero" of computing, and the man who invented -- and demonstrated -- virtually every aspect of modern computing as much as a decade before the PC. Engelbart presided over the ground-breaking 1968 demo of his Augment concept, which included multiple overlapping windows, the original mouse, a screen cursor, video conferencing, hyperlinks and cut-and-paste -- virtually every aspect of the modern PC user interface three decades later. Yet the combination of Engelbart's ego and his poor management skills doomed the project, and his best team members leaked over to Xerox PARC, where they worked on the equally doomed "Alto" workstation, source of Steve Job's inspiration.
In parallel to this central story are those of the Stanford AI Lab (SAIL), the Free University, the People's Computer Company, and the Homebrew Computer Club, all located within a few miles of the center of the San Francisco peninsula. SAIL, in its first incarnation under John McCarthy and Les Earnest, may have been the first place where computers (or the powerful access to a time-sharing server) really were "personal", and was almost certainly the birthplace of the first true computer game, SpaceWar. It was the locus of naked hot-tub parties, a porn video, and not a little bit of LSD (taken both as serious experimentation and recreationally) that fueled a cast of characters dodging the Vietnam war at Stanford and at the ARPA-funded Stanford Research Institute and creating a counter-culture. Virtually everyone linked to the genesis of the PC spent some time at SAIL, including Alan Kay, who conceived the first notebook computer, who appears first at SAIL before running into Englebart and his enrapturing demo of Augment, leading him to PARC and eventually Apple.
"Dormouse" is peppered with odd juxtapositions and combinations of characters including Fred Moore, the anti-war activist and single father who knit the community together with a pile of special punch cards and a knitting needle and helped create the People's Computer Company and the Homebrew Computer Club. Another, Steve Dompier, was widely accused -- falsely, Markoff convincingly reports -- of being the source for the infamous distribution of Gates' early Altair BASIC. ...
If the book has a problem, this is it. Markoff neither presents a first-person oral history nor is he able to tease a single central narrative thread out of this creative soup. He tells several interwoven stories, but there is so large a cast of characters that one must be a dedicated reader (or have a previous knowledge of some of the events described) to keep everything straight. Without a single narrative, the book returns several times to the start of a timeline, retracing it from another perspective, and after a while you feel the need for a map.
Markoff's own "Takedown" shows that with a clear narrative arc he is a wonderful writer, and while the complexity of the tale make keep away casual readers, Markoff does the entire technology industry a great service by capturing these tales while most of the primary sources are still alive. The central story of Doug Engelbart deserves a book of its own -- a better book than the nearly unreadable Bootstrapping by Thierry Bardini -- and one can hope that Markoff revisits the trove of original material he located for this story to write that book.
"Dormouse" is an essential "prequel" to Michael Hiltzik's excellent Dealers of Lightning, the definitive work (so far) on Xerox PARC, and belongs on every bookshelf that includes Katie Hafner's Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet.
For anyone who thinks they know anything, or wants to know anything, about the real roots of the PC revolution and the pioneers who never got famous, this book is required reading.
Of course it all started with transistors that TI built into integrated circuits in 1958. This was the essential technology that made the revolution possible and though the IC wasn't perfect it was only a few years before the idea of a home PC was possible. As possible as it was, Digital's CEO Ken Olson said that there was no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. This backward view, like Bill Gates in 1981 when he said there is no reason a PC would require more than 640K of RAM, seems laughable in hindsight yet it was these philosophies, among forward thinking men no less, that probably slowed down the process. It only follows that if these were the innovators closed-mindedness must have been the prevailing stance within the computer science community. Nevertheless progress did happen and thinking that within twenty years of the invention of the transistor solid stat computing was a solid technology it could very well be that these years saw a far greater technological leap than we have seen in the last 20 years.
As always is the case it was midlevel people that truly brought about the computer revolution. These people; the mid-level intelligent doers not the business leaders were able to thrive technically in the environment of the 1960's that questioned everything. This questioning allowed the cutting edge technology industry to break apart from stifling corporate mentalities of the current tech businesses and even universities that were still under the yoke of 19th century corporate mentality to a great extent. It was Stanford University that offered a strange mix of willingness to fund computer research and yet was a hot bead of counterculture. As a university that had a small amount of prestige yet by no means an overwhelmingly stifling atmosphere it was a breeding ground for new ideas. This naturally turned out to be a nurturing atmosphere for technical innovation.
John Markoff, explores this time of innovation that resulted in the fledgling PC industry. The book is less than a narrative and more of a mix of events accounts of people within the industry and researched texts. It is a very fast and interesting read. The connection of drugs and the enhancment consciousness and the idea that computers could augment the human intellect that Doug Englebart apparently had was visionary, though quite possibly accidental. The Drug culture of the 1960's at least opened the door to the idea of a world connected by computers. Reading this book really makes one aware of how visionary and pioneering these young computer scientists really were. I have been a fan of Markoff and his articles for a long time and I see he really put a lot of effort into making this book lucid and vital. This history is very important to us now and it had me call into question weather WWII or the PC revolution was the most important event of the 20th century. The only problem is that the book seems somewhat disjointed and I had trouble following the book at times. Overall I think this book is fascinating and should be required reading for engineering students. I