While there have been several histories of the personal computer, well-known technology writer John Markoff has created the first ever to spotlight the unique political and cultural forces that gave rise to this revolutionary technology. Focusing on the period of 1962 through 1975 in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a heady mix of tech industries, radicalism, and readily available drugs flourished, What the Dormouse Said tells the story of the birth of the personal computer through the people, politics, and protest that defined its unique era.
Although I had to put it down after the first chapter, it is fascinating stuff. I will get back to it eventually.
One premise in the first chapter impressed me most of all. Markoff traces the beginning of personal computing to 1945 -- specifically to an Atlantic Monthly article called "As We May Think". The author, Vannevar Bush, begins the article with a question:
[World War II] has not been a scientist's war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. Now, for many, this appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientists to do next?
Bush alludes to the necessary role scientists played in unleashing "strange destructive gadgets" during the war and challenges his colleagues to turn to more peaceful pursuits. After cataloging the technologies available in his day -- cutting-edge stuff like miniature cameras, microfilm and punch cards -- Bush proposes a concept called the "memory extender" or memex. According to Bush:
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which [one] works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
In one end is the stored material...Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things.
He goes on to describe how the owner of a memex recalls material and makes links between references. Although there are lots of differences, the whole concept is remarkably similar to how we use personal computers and the Internet today. It's amazing Bush dreamed it all sixty years ago.
Interested in more? To whet your appetite, take a look at this animation of what the memex might have been. And you can read the entire Atlantic Monthly article online too.