- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books Feb-28-2006; 63166th edition (February 28, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0143036769
- ISBN-13: 978-0143036760
- ASIN: B000IOEU90
- Package Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 65 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,250,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry Paperback – Bargain Price, February 28, 2006
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The book is a chronological approach to the development of computing with specific focus on Doug Engelbart and his team at SRI, John McCarthy’s SAIL and Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.
The book takes the reader to the time when people were experimenting with LSD and the development of the anti-establishment movement, which had a huge impact on the creation of the Homebrew computer club. Steven Jobs, who was a member of the club, would later visit PARC and got and would be inspired to start Apple and become the first major PC vendor.
If you are interested in the history of the PC and how it relates to the 60s culture, this is a good book.
The book attempts to tie together nerdie engineers with counterculture LSD druggies with free love types with antiwar activists with students with hackers and the mix is considerably hard to pull off, even for a writer as accomplished as Markoff. In fact, I would say that he fails at it. Still, he tries, yes, he does. He tries a chronological approach to things and soon we have computer science engineers dropping acid in what will become Silicon Valley, leading to who knows what kinds of creativity. But Markoff really concentrates this book on two or three people: Doug Engelbart and his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy’s SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.
Engelbart had a vision and he pulled in people to create his vision. He envisioned a computer — this was the 1960s — that would augment how people thought and what they did. McCarthy also envisioned a computerized world, albeit a slightly different one. Brand envisioned a computer for every person, while Kay envisioned small computers — laptops of today — that were so easy to use, that small children could be taught to use them. And these men all pulled it off!
Engelbart plays such a large role in the book, that it’s nearly all about him, and I think that does the book a bit of a disservice. Nonetheless, it’s he who creates the mouse to use with a display and keyboard in the late ’60s. He was funded largely by ARPA and was critical in the development of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.
At some point, the book shifts to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Reserch Center), the infamous Xerox research facility that had the most brilliant geniuses of the twentieth century under one roof and who literally did invent the personal computer as we know it to be. This was before Steve Wozniak and his famous claim that he invented the personal computer. Under Bob Taylor At PARC, Kay and the others who had shifted over there invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, a text editor (word processor), programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. Xerox was so stupid, they never realized what they had in hand and they could have owned the world, but they didn’t. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Markoff weaves various stories of people like Fred Moore throughout the book, attempting to capture the counterculture spirit, but it seemed a little lost on me. Most of the techies weren’t overly political. Most avoided Vietnam by working in a research facility that did weapons research (SRI). Most dropped acid at some point, but very few seemed to make that a lifestyle choice. I thought it was an interesting book, as the topic is personally interesting to me, but it wasn’t the most cohesively written book and I would have expected a little more from a writer of Markoff’s stature. Still, four solid stars and recommended.
This book is very much focused on the Stanford tech community in the 60’s and 70’s, and not the history of the personal computer as a whole. Important figures in the development of the PC (e.g. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates), as well as pioneering work done elsewhere are only mentioned in passing here. Silicon valley in the 60’s and 70s was a very different place then than the hyper-expensive “Internet Valley” it’s become now. As a unique and detailed account of that moment in time and place, the book tells the story well.