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Ask HN: Any Books on Inspirational Computer Science Personalities ?
14 points by sree_nair on Jan 19, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 19 comments
Recently I have read books on Nicola Tesla & Richard Feynman and both were immensly inspirational.

Was Wondering if there are any similar books on famous Computer science Personalities ?

My inspiration is Steve Wozniak. To this day, I try to write software with the same thinking he used when he built the Apple II. Get a clear picture of what you want, keep it as simple as possible, stand on the shoulders of giants but build your own tools when you have to, and keep all the details in your head. (This last one has made a huge difference in my work.)

You have no excuse not to read about this because Chapter 3 of Jessica Livingston's "Founders at Work" is one of the best treatments of Woz and is on line here:


Then check out



"Founders at Work"


Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy



Stories from early in the personal computer era. This book inspired me greatly when I read it as a high school sophomore. After reading it, I taught myself Pascal (that dates me -- I guess this was in 1989) and started making little drawing programs on our old Fat Mac.

At this point it's an old book, but it's still in print, and the profiles in it are pretty timeless.

Coders At Work is a book about a lot of high-profile programmers (Crockford, Knuth, Peyton Jones, Thompson, among others). It's not a biography on any of these people, but it was very inspiring to me.

This plus Founders At Work and as a side note - John Carmack's original .plan files.

He goes into great details about issues he was having with Video cards(NVIdia vs. ATI), 3D rendering etc and then his plans of how he was going to tackle them, the approaches he tried, what did not work etc. I somehow find them very unvarnished and inspirational.

Coders at Work was very inspiring to me and also gave me the functional programming bug. It seemed like every one of the legends interviewed had something nice to say about Haskell (deserved IMO).

Founders at Work is also great but in some ways more of a business book. If you want to do a startup it is incredibly inspirational.

Another oldie but goodie is Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine. http://www.amazon.com/Soul-New-Machine-Tracy-Kidder/dp/03164...

Not in the similar vein, but I would recommend "The Last Lecture" (by Randy Pausch). It was very inspirational to me. http://www.amazon.com/Last-Lecture-Randy-Pausch/dp/140132325...

I was going to recommend the Hodges biography of Alan Turing, but it appears to be (sadly) out of print.


[edit: In the US. Someone else posted the link to the UK edition, thanks!]

Steven Levys "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution" from 1984 is a great read. It pictures three major hacker cultures: the MIT hackers; Woz and the other early hardware hackers; and the video game hackers of the 70's/80's.


John Markoffs "What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry" from 2005 is another great book that follows the history of the PC industry, from it's roots in the ideas of Vannevar Bush and Doug Engelbart to the modern PC. IIRC Woz and the MIT hackers are portrayed here as well, but there's not too much overlap with Levy's book.


In the same vein as Coders at Work is Programmers at Work by Susan Lammers: http://www.amazon.com/Programmers-Work-Interviews-Computer-I...

The book is now out of print, but the author has a blog on which she is gradually posting all the old interviews and also provides a place to discuss the interviews: http://programmersatwork.wordpress.com/

I kept adding Inspirational stories I find on HN and other places on http://inspiry.tumblr.com (Just wanted to share)

Portraits in Silicon: http://www.amazon.com/Portraits-Silicon-Robert-Slater/dp/026... It has short bios of several computing pioneers.

Jeff Bezos: King of Amazon.com is a very inspirational reading:


Oh the irony -- it's not available on Kindle.

Grace Murray Hopper:


Also googling her will turn up inspirational material.

Don't forget about Johnny von Neumann! Read his biographies too.

I recommend the following. Don't know why, but after I read a biography on Oppenheimer I just had to read this too.

Aspray, William (1990) John von Neumann and the origins of modern computing. MIT Press. (http://www.amazon.com/Neumann-Origins-Modern-Computing-Histo...)

I'll second the recommendation of reading about von Neumann. But brace yourself to be intimidated as well as inspired. The man was a giant among giants.

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