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The Evolution of Computers: Key Resources (July 2013): The Personal Computing Revolution

By Kyle D. Winward

The Personal Computing Revolution

A study of the beginnings and the adoption of the personal computer would not be complete without the inclusion of works about hardware and software.  An essential component for the increasingly small scale of computers was the advent of the transistor, which was created by a team of scientists that was led by William Shockley and included John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, as described in “Solid State Science Takes Root at Bell” on the Transistorized! website.  These men were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for their work.  An outstanding book about these individuals and the transistor is Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson.  Shockley, who was a key participant in the development of Silicon Valley, is profiled in Joel Shurkin’s Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, which also covers Shockley’s tarnished reputation resulting from his later controversial writings on eugenics and race.

Further evolution of the transistor made personal computers possible, specifically, the development of the integrated circuit (or microchip), a self-contained assemblage of a transistor and circuitry.  In The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution, T. R. Reid examines the work of Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, who almost simultaneously created the integrated circuit in the late 1950s.  This topic is is also addressed in “The History of the Integrated Circuit”, a section of the website.  In 2000, Kilby received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the integrated circuit.

The work of Robert Noyce and others at Fairchild Semiconductor is examined in Christophe Lécuyer and David Brock’s Makers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor, and Noyce is profiled individually in The Man behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley by Leslie Berlin.  In Microchip: An Idea, Its Genesis, and the Revolution It Created, Jeffrey Zygmont provides an interesting and accessible account of the developments and people involved with advances in the integrated circuit and microchip technology.

While there are not as many recent print titles about the history of software and programming as there are about circuitry, a highly recommended title is Charles Petzold’s Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software.  Covering more recent developments and efforts to design more intuitive software is Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software by Scott Rosenberg.

Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine, first published in 1981, continues to be a perennial favorite on the personal computing revolution.  Kidder was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for this work, which reports on a group of engineers who worked grueling hours under tight deadlines to design and produce a new computer.  Recommended for its broad sweep of the development of the personal computer industry is Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine.  This readable book traces the trailblazing work and impact of many of the young engineers, hobbyists, and hackers in the early years of Silicon Valley.

While some early pioneering personal computer companies, most notably Apple Computers and IBM, have to date successfully adapted to changing trends, some of their early contemporaries are no longer in the personal computer market and in some cases are defunct.  In Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age, Michael Hiltzik describes the many early successes of Xerox Corporation and PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the 1970s and 1980s, e.g., the development of the handheld peripheral that came to be known as a mouse, the first “WYSIWYG” (“what you see is what you get”) text editor, and the Ethernet, which facilitated local area networks.  However, despite these many successes, Xerox failed to create a foothold in the personal computer market, and PARC became an independent entity.  Similarly in The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga, Jimmy Maher describes a promising early personal computer that was introduced in the mid 1980s and continued into production through the early 1990s; however, Commodore could not sustain its momentum and declared bankruptcy in 1994.

Some of the most well-known personalities and companies of Silicon Valley were contemporaries of the personal computing revolution, most notably Bill Gates and Microsoft, and Steve Jobs and Apple Computers.  Two books, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs by Alan Deutschman and the recent, highly acclaimed Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, reveal through personal portraits how Jobs, through his tenacity and marketing genius, spearheaded the early successes of Apple Computers, and with another very successful company, IBM, moved Apple to quickly adapt to trends in the computing marketplace.

Definitely not to be overlooked are Steve Wozniak’s instrumental contributions to Apple and the computer industry in general.  An excellent addition to any computer history collections is Wozniak’s autobiography IWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It.  Tracing his early interests and accomplishments in electronics and engineering, Wozniak then goes on to describe his later association with Steve Jobs and their flair for telecommunications hacking and also their shared passion for art, music, and education.  Wozniak also clears up misconceptions about his tenure at Hewlett-Packard and Apple.  While Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak hoped that Apple would establish a base in the business field (as IBM still maintains), Apple had most of its earlier successes in personal computing and education, and in the multimedia arena with iTunes and the iPod.  Another highly recommended title about Apple and what its future may be is Adam Lashinsky’s Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired—and Secretive—Company Really Works.

Bill Gates’s and the majority of Microsoft’s successes have been in software, the most obvious example being Windows, but also with the Office productivity software for both Windows and Apple’s operating systems, and the Internet Explorer browser. In Gates, Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews provide a window into how Bill Gates achieved phenomenal success in building Microsoft into an industry giant.  Controversy about Microsoft’s bundling of the Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system resulted in landmark antitrust lawsuits, which John Heilemann describes in Pride before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era.  In Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the Battle for the Internet, Charles Arthur contends Microsoft has not been very successful in unbundling itself from its hierarchical organizational traditions, and its forays into the web, mobile technologies, and music platforms have been hampered by setbacks that have left the company trailing Apple and Google.  A good introduction to the organizational strategies of the most successful companies in the Internet-based economy is The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business by Phil Simon.

Works Cited