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Ask HN: Computer Science/History Books?
331 points by jackofalltrades on March 27, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 154 comments
Hi guys, can you recommend interesting books on Computer Science or computer history (similar to Dealers of Lightning) to read on this quarantine times? I really like that subject and am looking for something to keep myself away from TV at night.

Thank you.

The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal

It's an extremely well written book, starting from the very beginning at the time of WWII, tracing people, ideas, struggles, and achievements of great milestones in computer history. It's not your typical dry historical material, but somehow the author made it personal through the eyes of key people that influenced important computer science progresses, and in particular J.C.R. Licklider (Lick), who galvanized a lot efforts across the U.S. in the sixties that resulted in making computing interactive and ultimately personal, rather than batch and business-focused. Many important milestones are discussed, starting with the early days of mechanical computers, vacuum tubes, relays, ENIAC, UNIVAC, through MIT's various efforts during the cold war to help with real-time computing with Whirlwind and the SAGE project; IBM's mainframes dominance in the fifties, and the hacker culture that arose against it at MIT to build interactive computers like the TX-0 and TX-2, to the spin-off of DEC and its minicomputers that changed the game; to building time-sharing systems, and the groundbreaking inventions of Douglas Engelbart and his team at SRI; the rise of the ARPA network; the many great ideas developed at Xerox PARC; and ultimately the personal computer revolution and the Internet.

I will warn that it starts off pretty dry and slow but it all comes together in the end and I am so glad I pushed all the way through.

I borrowed this book from the library, but before I finished it I bought it, I liked it that much. In short, I very much agree with this recommendation.

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Probably the best book on product development ever written. Command Line Heroes podcast on it: https://www.redhat.com/en/command-line-heroes/season-4/minic... (Disclosure: I work for Red Hat)

Also worth checking out in this vein is Showstopper about the development of Windows NT which focuses on the role of Dave Cutler.

Soul of a New Machine is fantastic!

Also on computer architecture / story of developing a new processor, "The Pentium Chronicles" by Robert Colwell is a really interesting book on the story of the Pentium Pro, the first out-of-order CPU from Intel.

"The Road Ahead" by Bill Gates is an interesting look into what Bill envisioned for the Internet. It came with a CD-ROM full of videos of how devices would be used in schools and workplaces (I thonk law enforcement too if I remember correctly). The videos are much better than the book.

"The Second Coming of Steve Jobs" was eye opening for me regarding the life of Jobs, his family life, and his business involvements.

"Masters of Doom" by David Kushner chronicles the history of id Software and its creators. It's an entertaining book for sure, especially the part where id has Gwar show up at Microsoft.

"Close to the Machine" by Ellen Ullman is the memoir of a software developer in the 80s. I need to read this one again, but it was enjoyable. I think about one part in particular from time to time where the author recounts being offered a job to work on an aging mainframe. The man pitching the job is probably the last person around who's dedicated to maintaining it. She would have made a lot of money doing it, but the work itself looked to be soul draining, so she skipped it fpr pther opportunities

"The Fugitive Game" by Jonathan Littman documents the story of Kevin Mitnick, the so-called most wanted hacker alive. Certainly has some surprises and is a fun read.

Pretty much anything by Norbert Wiener regarding cybernetics is interesting from a historical perspective. I've read several but the one that comes to mind immediately is "God and Golem, Inc". While unfinished, it goes into cybernetics, which was a practice or idea that technology could interface with biological life in a complementary way and those ways should be pursued. I think he was ultimately successful since we take a lot of those ideas for granted today.

"The Computer and The Brain" by John von Neumann is a great and short read. It mostly talks about how binary signals can be fired by synapses in the brain.

for the 'road ahead', I guess it's interesting to read both versions (the original edition and the 'Completely revised and up-to-date' that actually takes into account the Internet)

I only read the first one (I knew about the existence of the second). It's very funny how he waxes poetic in several chapters about the future "Information Highway" (not superhighway as some have said) and takes a lot of care to make sure we understand that the Internet is not it, but just a precursor.

Haven't seen anyone mention these but I like them a lot:

"Show-Stoppers: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft" One of my favorite, exposes how large software project can really grind on people. Dave Cutler an interesting character and some of the connections between the NT team, DEC and Cutler hate of UNIX is fun.

"Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government--Saving Privacy in the Digital Age" - Others have mentioned Hackers by Levy but this one is also really interesting. Talks about the story of Whitfield Diffie and Marty Hellman (Of diffie-helman fame) and others.

"Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet" Cover the early creation of the internet.

"What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry" - If you've heard of the mother of all demos, this covers Doug Englebart and a few other important folks from the 60s.

I can also recommend Showstoppers. One thing I thought was interesting is that Dave Cutler swore by taking his vacations on time, every time. It's a stark contrast to the "hustle" culture you sometimes hear, given how highly regarded he is at his profession

Two lesser known books that I enjoyed: 1) "Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park's code-breaking computers", and 2) "The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal".

One thing I learned from the "Colossus" book was the contribution of British engineers to early computers (Tommy Flowers in particular). They didn't get the credit they deserved because their work was kept secret for so long.

I came here to recommend The Dream Machine. Wonderful book and extremely well written.

The Dream Machine might be my favorite book of all time.

Agreed. I only found out about the Dream Machine from Hacker News (I think it was Alan Kay who recommended it) and it was absolutely the best book ever written on the topic.

Bentley, Jon., Bell Labs. "Programming Pearls" 1986. --Coding excercises, advice, and annecdotes about problem solving. Get up on grandpa's knee and listen to a bunch of stories about UNIX.

Stephenson, Neal. "In the Beginning...Was the Command Line" 1999. --History of the evolution of UI's and their impact on people, culture, productivity, especially 80's and 90's.

Van Wyk, Christopher J., Bell Labs. "Data Structures and C Programs" 1988. --D & A textbook, 80's style. Like Bently, more focus than we are now used to on things like space time trade offs, resource constraints, in-place operations, etc.

Agree with all posted before.

Adding Clifford Stoll, Cuckoo's Egg; white it's not so much a history of computing as a personal history of a geek astronomer catching a hacker, it represents a lot of early computing culture, and I enjoyed it a lot.

I second The Cuckoo's Egg. It's a great read and provides a vivid portrait of a particular point in time of Unix culture.

Mr. Stoll, do you agree?

Code: the hidden language of computer hardware and software, by Charles Petzold.

It's a modern classic (2000). It's less technical and more about the history behind the idea/theories of coding itself. It also explains some basic principles of how computers work, at a high level. Very well written.

I also think it's a great book, but partly because it is technical.

Charles is great at explaining how computers actually work with circuit diagrams from the ground up in a way that's articulate, clear, and engaging. I think I learned more from this book than I did in my CS architecture class.

The historical context he puts it in helps with clarity since it's easier to understand when you know how each successive step built on the previous one.

In addition to the Dream Machine, I'd also mention Steven Levy's Hackers as an obvious one to read.

Some others I've read:

- What the dormouse said (this one was just okay, but interesting to see some of the cultural context at the time).

- Crypto (about the history of cryptography). I really liked this one, but people I've recommended it to found it dry.

- In the Plex (history of Google)

- Masters of Doom (John Carmack, John Romero and Id Software)

Related Fiction:

- Microserfs

- The Soul of a New Machine

- The Phoenix Project (fiction paired with the Dev Ops Handbook)

Curious why you labelled The Soul of a New Machine as fiction? It's a non-fiction book by Tracy Kidder and I highly recommend it. A really fantastic piece of work I think anyone in our industry should read, great insights into teams, burnout, our culture, managing, software development etc. There are online versions of it if you Google.

I don’t know why I did that, you’re definitely right and it’s about data general so I know it’s non-fiction.

I guess the narrative style made it feel like a novel to me and I just impulsively classified it incorrectly.

Oh, maybe my idea of "technical" is too narrow. From a typical book perspective it's very technical. I meant it more from a textbook perspective. Code isn't a book you use to teach, or to learn concepts in detail. You could learn plenty of things at a high level, some concepts at a single-example level, but you aren't learning computer architecture or algorithms here. It's the only book I've read that effectively bridges casual reading with textbook ideas, without actually throwing you in the deep end.

On a side note, people keep recommending masters of doom to me, I definitely need to check it out myself.

If you're going to read the Phoenix Project, skip it and go back to Goldratt's 'The Goal'. And take it with a grain of salt.

The Phoenix project was inspired in part by the goal - I think it's still good and the software focus makes it more fun to read if you're in software.

Sure, just don't expect it to apply in reality.

It definitely does - nothing is perfect, but the core ideas of version control for config, continuous deployment, automated testing, focusing on bottlenecks, and tracking data are all valid.

The dev ops handbook is a good compliment for real world examples. I’ve personally seen good dev ops turn things around and make products way better.

I read Phoenix Project first and then The Goal. I enjoyed both and I think that's the best order.

> The Soul of a New Machine

There's a software-industry version of that book about the startup Ask Computer Software killing it in the MRP business software space with a product called MANMAN. Maybe somebody remembers the title?

It's like reading a long version of one of Paul Graham's essays.

Some of the things it covers:

- Ask's actual relationships with customers. One of them interviews all other existing clients before buying (like 200 companies.)

- the software team dynamics. One "rockstar" polyfills over all the weird OS bugs at the time, so the others can work on the actual application.

Ask eventually acquired Ingres.


I’d also add Small Fry to this list - Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ memoir. Very different in style, but very good and focused on the family life part rarely talked about.

Crypto is likely even better than Hackers, in fact.

This is one of my favorite books of all time out of all books, not just tech. No other book has had a more profound impact on how I look at and relate to those (previously) mysterious chunks of metal and plastic that we all spend so much time in front of now.

A few good ones that haven't been mentioned yet:

* "IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems " https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/ibms-360-and-early-370-system...

* "Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet" https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35953464-broad-band

* "Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer" https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1427580.Fire_in_the_Vall...

I second Fire in the Valley - there are a lot of good Mac-era anecdotes. Hertzfeld put a lot of them at https://www.folklore.org/ as well.

The First Computers—History and Architecture edited by Rojas and Hashagen

If you haven't read it, IBM's Early Computers is great.

"Let it go" by Madame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley

Creating a software company 100% remote 99% women In the 1960s!!!!

How was it possible?? Easy "programmers" programmed flawless programs in their homes with pencil.

Which would later be typed in Punch cards in the "office".

She also struggled family life raising a heavily autistic son, when the condition wasn't well understood. And then became a philantophist.

I think every woman in tech should read that book.

I second this one. That book was awesome, as well as her story.

The Friendly Orange Glow : The Untold Story of the PLATO system and the dawn of cyberculture (2017) is a really interesting book about a system few people here would probably have heard of.


How the Internet Happened is very good. The podcast that was created while writing the book is also worth a listen.


Accidental Empires is also very good


on the PLATO book, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15784052 has interesting comments from the author. On PLATO itself, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16615420

While i'm at it, the book 'Minitel, Welcome to the Internet' - https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/minitel is about the history of the french Minitel (previous HN discussion on the Minitel - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14681561 )

That Minitel book is okay, but I didn't get too much out of it that wasn't on an early Reply All podcast episode.

this one https://gimletmedia.com/shows/reply-all/8whoda ? "In the early 80's, way before the world wide web existed, the French government shipped a $200 terminal to every home with a phone line, and created a service that for decades ran alongside the internet. It was called The Minitel. Producer Carla Green speaks to reporter Jean-Marc Manach, who, in the early 90's, made a living posing as a woman in sex chat rooms on Minitel. "

Also read the counterpart to friendly orange glow, "A People’s History of Computing in the United States"

* Alan Turing: The Enigma of Intelligence by Andrew Hodges. The definitive biography, with lots of detailed explanations of his work.

* Making Software, edited by Oram & Wilson. A bunch of papers about evidence-based software engineering.

* Beautiful Code, also edited by Oram & Wilson. A bunch of papers about especially elegant pieces of software.

* Eiffel, by Bertrand Meyer. What Java should have been.

* The Devil's DP Dictionary, by Stan Kelly Bootle. A satirical look at the computer industry circa 1980.

* The Jargon File. (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/). The language of the Elder Days.

* Facts and Fallacies of Software Engineering by Robert Glass.

* The Pragmatic Programmer by Hunt & Thomas.

Haven't read them, but they are on my to-do-list:

"Turing's Cathedral" https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/25/turings-cathed...

"The Innovators" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Innovators_(book)

Turing's Cathedral is fantastic. The most enjoyable computer science history book I've read. Highly recommended.

I'm still working thru "The Innovators"! and so far it has been a delight. One of the main points of the book was the importance of teamwork. It's a great take on the idea that in the shadow of great figures, like Steve Jobs and IBM, lie hundreds of lesser known innovators.

+1 for Turing's Cathedral. As mentioned, it's a lot about von Neumann. Slightly dense writing style but does a great job of explaining some of the key intellectual breakthroughs behind development of the computer. It's most about the 1940s-50s but it sets the historical context well (both contemporary and going back to Gottfried Leibnitz).

I thought Turing's Cathedral was pretty good but note that it's mostly about John von Neumann not Alan Turing.

Turing’s Cathedral but von Neumann was the Pope.

Lots of good recommendations in this thread. Here’s some more:

• Turner, Fred (2006) From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

• Slatalla, Michelle & Quittner, Joshua (1995) Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace

• Schlender, Brent & Tetzeli, Rick (2015) Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader

• Isaacson, Walter (2011) Steve Jobs

This one might also be worth lookin in to:

Hertzfeld, Andy (2004) Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made

I haven’t read it in book form but AFAICT the contents of the book are also available over at https://www.folklore.org/

By the way, you might also want to have a look at this project someone published recently:

Meta book recommendations from Ask HN threads https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22693634

Highly recommend A History of Modern Computing [1]. Starting with the ENIAC in the '40s through the successive generations of computing technology in the 20th century, it gives a fantastic overview of the field's history.

Sadly, now that I look into it, it looks like it's out of print. There are a few copies available on Amazon, so act now!

[1] https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/history-modern-computing

There's apparently a second edition which goes up through the dot com crash.


I think that the best sections in this book are on the 1950s through the 1970s: the mainframe and minicomputer eras, and the beginnings of the Internet and personal computers. That's all in the first edition.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution ~ Steven Levy

The Soul of a New Machine - Tracy Kidder

That came out when I was a CPU logic designer, deep in the middle of a major mainframe project. (100K ECL, 20 BTU ton water chiller per CPU). My cube-mate and I both gave that book to our wive's and said: "Here. This is what I do."

+1 on "The Soul of a New Machine": it's one of the most mentioned computer history books, and inspired the great "Halt and Catch Fire" TV series.

The Soul of a New Machine is a great read! Highly recommended.

I thought Renegades of the Empire was a fascinating look into the internal machinations at Redmond and a bit of DirectX history too


As a follow-up, anyone have any books written about the Dotcom era? I was still fairly young at the time so I don’t remember a lot of it and I can’t find any books or shows that cover it. Lots of stuff from the 70s/80s/early 90s (Masters of Doom, Cuckoos Egg, Halt and Catch Fire, Pirates of Silicon Valley), and lots of stuff from modern Silicon Valley (Bad Blood, Silicon Valley, the various Steve Jobs movies/books) but it seems like the startup world from 1995 to 2002 is just a blank space waiting to be filled.

What about Yahoo and Amazon and Pets.com and Webvan and eBay? What about stock being used for toilet paper and employees wheeling their Aeron chairs home when the company folded? What about Enron? How did 9/11 impact the Dotcom bust? Hell, what programming languages/frameworks were they using?

There's "The Nudist on the Late Shift" by Po Bronson, which is an expansion on his various Wired writing from the Dotcom era. It's pretty good.


You can read the first (and best) chapter here: https://www.wired.com/1999/07/pilgrims/

There was a Josh Hartnett/Adam Scott movie called August that's set in the dot-com boom. It's got fairly low reviews but I also don't think they do it justice. Some of the reviews seem to be about how it's impenetrable and hard to understand.

For some lighter fare that others in your family might also connect to, there's Ashton Kutcher's A lot like love but there the dot-com thing is just a side plot.

Also, Antitrust with Ryan Phillippe. Not specifically about the dot-com boom but roughly the same time period.

I mean none of those movies are masterpieces but I think they impart some sense of the time period.

“Speeding the net” was decent. Mostly about Netscape and their battle for supremacy in the browser market with Microsoft. Also on that topic, the movie “code rush” was decent. I believe it’s on YouTube.

Of interest, eBay started as a site to distribute information about the then Ebola outbreak.

The oldest 'Joel on Software' [0] posts are kind of a window into some of the best writing on software of that time.

[0] https://www.joelonsoftware.com/

"How the Internet Happened" by Brian McCullough covers the early years of the internet through the dotcom bust. He has a podcast consisting of some of the chapters for the book and interviews he did while writing.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu


A great book on history of the information economy over the periods of Radio, Telephone, and cable TV that has a lot to say about how the longer cycles of technology play out.

I second this recommendation and his book "The Attention Merchants" as well.

These are going to seem a bit strange, as they don't go that far into history, but I found the really interesting in showing how projects grow and evolve over time.

The Design and Evolution of C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup: This book is quite old itself now, but it talks about the early days of C++, and does a good job of describing how we ended up with the language we did.

The Old New Thing, Practical Development Throughout the Evolution of Windows by Raymond Chen. You can also read lots of the parts of this book on Raymond's blog, of the same name. This book really gave me a lot more respect for Windows and Microsoft on a technical level, giving many small fun stories on how functionality evolves over time, and how sensible decisions cause pain 10 years later.

Since these have not been mentioned already:

* Brian Bagnall trilogy on the history of Commodore/Amiga: http://variantpress.com

* Severo Ornstein's "Computing in the Middle Ages", about how it used to be a professional programmer back in the early days. You can find his CHM oral history interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q243lfVdQ9E.

* "Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer". A candid view about how the PC industry unfolded.

* "Introduction to Algorithms" by Udi Manber. IMHO one of the best books about how to approach problems with a programmer's mindset.

1. UNIX: A History and a Memoir

2. The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer

3. The idea factory - Bell Land and the great age of American innovation

4. Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

5. The Chip: How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution

7. Intel Trinity,The: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World's Most Important Company

8. The Dream Machine

9. The Soul of a new machine

+1 UNIX: A History and a Memoir

I read it after seeing a recommendation here, and I've been recommending it ever since. I loved reading the early history of the development of UNIX and all the command line tools we use on a regular basis. The history was wonderful to read, and it made me a little better at the command line as well.

A People’s History of Computing in the United States - Joy Lisi Rankin

Joy Rankin draws on detailed records to explore how users exchanged messages, programmed music and poems, fostered communities, and developed computer games like The Oregon Trail. These unsung pioneers helped shape our digital world, just as much as the inventors, garage hobbyists, and eccentric billionaires of Palo Alto.

Also read its counterpart "The Friendly Orange Glow"

The Dream Machine is a fantastic and thorough history of the early days of computing, woven together as a partial autobiography of J. C. R. Licklider, though the scope of the book is substantially grander.

It’s a long read, and I opted to do the audiobook option, which I found entertaining and captivating. It covers the origins of computing from the WWII days, to the early debates in the computing world, to ARPA and all of its resulting projects, Xerox PARC formation, and finally the emergence of microcomputers.

The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick is great. Starts with Ada Lovelace/Charles Babbage and goes on from there, I found it fascinating.

"The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood" starts with "1 | Drums That Talk" re: African drum messaging; a complex coding scheme:

> Here was a messaging system that outpaced the best couriers, the fastest horses on good roads with way stations and relays.



From "Polynesian People Used Binary Numbers 600 Years Ago" https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/polynesian-people... :

> Binary arithmetic, the basis of all virtually digital computation today, is usually said to have been invented at the start of the eighteenth century by the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. But a study now shows that a kind of binary system was already in use 300 years earlier among the people of the tiny Pacific island of Mangareva in French Polynesia.

Seconded, this is a really excellent book.

"It's Behind You" by Bob Pape chronicles the porting of the arcade game R-Type to the ZX Spectrum. He never published it and instead created a website where it can be downloaded freely: http://bizzley.com/ It's a great short (136pg) read on the development processes necessary back in the day to squeeze performance out of limited hardware.

I haven't touched it in ages but "where wizards stay up late" is about the origins of the internet

A good history of early British computing is Programmed Inequality. Gets at why that country squandered its WW2-era computing lead (spoiler alert: sexism was part of it). https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/programmed-inequality

Racing the Beam https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/racing-beam Wolfenstein Black Book http://fabiensanglard.net/gebbwolf3d/ Doom Black Book http://fabiensanglard.net/gebbdoom/

Platform studies book series in general cover a lot of this https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/series/platform-studies.

The NES book in the Platform Studies series (I Am Error) is the best of the lot, although they're pretty good (particularly Racing the Beam). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/9805921.Nathan_Altice

Thanks, I've only read Racing the Beam but I've been meaning to check out some of the other ones. I'll start with that one.

Kernighan's "UNIX: A History and a Memoir" is a fun read.

I'm in the middle of this right now. It really is an interesting read. He's clear enough, and keeps out of too much detail, so a civilian can read it, but there's enough meat to be interesting to a techie.

Thank you, I'll take a look.

If you want to learn about the proto-history of the computer, a graphic novel called "The Thrilling Adventures Of Lovelace And Babbage" is well worth your time.

The comic itself is pure fiction of a zany cartoon comedy variety.

The writer is obsessed with the actual history, though, to a point where her footnotes sometimes take as much space on the page as comic panels.

It's a glorious thing and provides more insight into who Babbage and Lovelace really were than anything else I've personally read.


Out of their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists https://cs.nyu.edu/shasha/outofmind.html

Revolution in the Valley by Andy Hertzfeld is pretty good. Not purely about the technical details but definitely the mindset, culture and activities that made a huge impact on modern consumer computing.

I'm really enjoying "The Code" by Margaret O'Mara, which is specifically a history of Silicon Valley. It's not particularly technical, but the history is fascinating. O'Mara does a great job of presenting a nuanced view of the different factors that formed Silicon Valley as we know it: entrepreneurship, academia, defense. Defense in particular is usually omitted from the narrative, but has been a crucial ingredient from the start.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

One of my favorite books, it covers everything from braille to microprocessors. A great book for anyone interested in technology.

The Computer History Museum has lots of history on line https://computerhistory.org/

The articles that I have read could use some editing, I'm guessing they were transcribed from audio recordings by people who were not computer experts.

I really enjoyed "What the Dormouse Said" https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_the_Dormouse_Said it was about how the 60s counter culture interacted with the personal computer industry being formed, so a lot of computer science interwoven with politics.

"Racing the Beam", on the early Atari; notable for nailing both the techological and sociological sides of the games it studies.

Also "I Am Error" (from the same series) on the Nintendo NES - a really great book.

Computer Architecture: Concepts and Evolution by Fred Brooks, Etc is a comprehensive look into the evolution of computer architecture.

I had not heard of this one, somehow. Will certainly put it on my reading list. Thanks.

The following is a list of my favorite books on software engineering, cyber-security, and the history of IT business development.

Bowden, Mark (2011) Worm: The First Digital World War

Brooks, Frederick (1995) Mythical Man-Month, 2nd ed.

Christensen, Clayton (1997) Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail

Hafner, Katie and Matthew Lyon (1996) Where Wizards Stay Up Late: Origins of the Internet

Hunt, Andrew and David Thomas (1999) Pragmatic Programmer

MacCormick, John (2012) Nine Algorithms that Changed the Future

McConnell, Steve (2004) Code Complete, 2nd ed.

Mitnick, Kevin and William Simon (2002) Art of Deception

Poulsen, Kevin (2011) Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cyber-Crime Underworld

Raymond, Eric (2003) Art of Unix Programming

Stone, Brad (2013) The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

Torvalds, Linus and David Diamond (2001) Just for Fun: Story of an Accidental Revolutionary

Wallace, James and Jim Erickson (1992) Hard Drive: Bill Gates and Making of the Microsoft Empire

Williams, Sam (2002) Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

Wilson, Mike (1996) The Difference between God and Larry Ellison: Inside Oracle Corp

IBM's Early Computers and IBM's 360 and Early 370 Systems. They are an incredible wealth of information for the research, design and implementations of early computers. Been aching to know about how the different transistors were developed, by whom and what their benefits and drawbacks were? It's all in these two.

Since Show Stopper was already mentioned and I didn't see this one mentioned, so I'll throw this one out there:

Fatal Defect by Ivars Peterson https://www.amazon.com/Fatal-Defect-Chasing-Killer-Computer/...

It's a few stories about the impact software bugs can have on real life. For example, the THERAC-25 bug that literally killed people.

It's been eons since I read the book, but I recall a passage about how computer scientists had been so opposed to Reagan's Star Wars program, Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), not because it's a war machine, but because it was so complex that there would be no way to be sure it was bug free. I'm sure it was more nuanced than that but that's my 20+ year recollection of that part of the book.

The Intel Trinity About the early days until 90s for Intel, having stories on Shockley's semiconductor lab, Fairchild then Intel etc.

The soul of a new machine Not much history, but more on how a small computer manufacturer in 70s. It's quite relevant today, as the process very much resembles a software startup's.

A lot of great books are already mentioned.

I also enjoyed "Masterminds of Programming: Conversations With The Creators Of Major Programming Languages" [0]

It's a collection of interviews with creators of languages (FORTH, C++, Python, Haskell, and many more) You learn a lot about language design decisions and their pitfalls.

And a shameless plug: I shared MapFilterFold as a Show HN earlier, a project that collects recommendations from Ask HN threads. Browsing the books tagged computer science might yield some interesting results[1]

[0] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0596515170/

[1] https://mapfilterfold.com/books/?genre=computer%20science

UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan.

UNIX is the predecessor to Linux/BSD and was created at Bell laboratories. Also C was created there.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Unix https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_philosophy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C_%28programming_language%29

"Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new "features"."

One could say Micro services is a form that, do one thing and do it well.

"Programmers At Work" by Susan Lammers was a great read in its time, and I keep referring to ideas from it. Might be worth a look. Peter Seibel's done a great job with continuing the idea, e.g. "Coders At Work", "Founders At Work."

Is it time to read "Godel, Escher, Bach?"

Gamers at Work is also great if you're curious about the early days of the games industry. The discussions focus on the business side, so it reads more like Founders than like Coders. Interesting to see where some of today's giants began.

Programmed Inequality by Mar Hicks, https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/programmed-inequality

On the history of women in programming in Britain and how they got discarded from the profession.

"Code" by Charles Petzold is a great read. It describes how computers work from the bottom up, starting with how you can get electricity to do math. I've recommended it to people of all backgrounds, and everyone loves it.

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

I've enjoyed "The Analogue Alternative: The Electronic Analogue Computer in Britain and USA, 1930-1970", By James S. Small. Really got me thinking about the possibility of forgotten ideas from that space.

- ENIAC - The triumphs and tragedies of the world's first computer

- Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age

- From airline reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog - a history of the software industry

- History of programming languages Volumes 1 to 3

I really loved "Valley of Genius"

500 pages of straight quotes. It reads like everyone is gathered around a campfire talking about the past, and you're there with them. Great book


Code is excellent, Innovators are immersive, the Code Book is brilliant, albeit less about computer history and more about cryptography in general (all books by simon Singh are super interesting).

Two on AI history:

Pamela McCorduck's Machines Who Think, either the 1979 original edition, or the 2004 2nd ed, which adds a 100-page afterword covering 1979–2004.

Nils Nilsson's The Quest for Artificial Intelligence (2009).

They have somewhat different styles and focuses. McCorduck is a writer (of popular science and sci-fi), while Nilsson was an AI researcher. Which isn't to say that McCorduck lacks knowledge about AI or that Nilsson can't write, but their backgrounds are noticeable in how the books are organized and written.

The Dream Machine is very long but IMO very good and worth the effort. Part-biography, part-history (going all the way back to the early days e.g. Turing), and extremely thorough!

Oh and MITRE: The First 20 Years

Sophistication & Simplicity: The Life & Times of the Apple II Computer


Not technically a book (I think that was the original plan) but there are significant interviews on the History of Numerical Analysis and Scientific Computing


Curious that "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" by Eric S. Raymond hasn't been mentioned yet.

Also: Logicomix, about the development of modern logic up to Gödel.

The innovators by Walter Isaacson.

He did Steve jobs bio, Ben Franklin bio, Leonardo davinchi bio, but this is my favorite since it's basically 30 biographies in one.

I finished this one a couple months ago, highly recommended! After I started his Einstein biography in college, I missed several classes after getting caught up in it and losing track of time.

20 years ago I downloaded a text version of the Jargon File [1] and read it back to front. It wasn't dry at all and gave me an insight into the 60's/70's Silicon Valley hacker culture...

[1] I don't know where I got it 20 years ago but DDGing gave me https://jargon-file.org/archive/

Metropolis, N., J. Howlett, and Gian-Carlo Rota, A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century, Academic Press, 1980.


This is based on papers presented at a 1976 conference by many of the original pioneers.

Not a book, but Oxide Computing's podcast, "On the Metal" interviews a lot of interesting people in computing: https://oxide.computer/podcast/

I found it both entertaining and informative and if you're looking for something to kill time while you exercise, this is a good option.

Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer

High Stakes, No Prisoners - history of the birth of the Internet written by the founder of FrontPage, with a keen critique of Netscape's history - Charles Ferguson

Computer Wars - a look at the decline of IBM by the early 90s - Charles Ferguson

Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley - An oral history of the Valley in the 80s and 90s.

I was about to recommend Dealers of Lightning :D

And that would be an excellent recommendation! :)

Here’s one that’s a hit or miss depending on your interests: The Design And Evolution of C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup himself.


"Dreaming in code" by Scott Rosenberg

It tells the story of a software team which has everything, money, talent, time... but doesn't find how to materialize their idea. I've kept the warning in mind ever since


I second some of the ones others have mentioned, e.g. like Soul of a New Machine,the Hackers book by Levy, the 2 Programming Pearls books by Jon Bentley, etc.

Bentley also wrote a less-often-mentioned gem of a book: Writing Efficient Programs. It is about performance tuning of programs at many levels, micro to macro.

I wonder why

Free as in freedom, Sam Williams

Wasn't mentioned (maybe it's too recent?), the book is written as biographical snapshots of Richard Stallman, basically the story of the Free software, I think it's a great complement for The Cathedral and the Bazaar which was already mentioned.

Something I also liked as far as history is concerned: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20797521 while it's not a formal book, it covers the motivation and some nitty gritty stuff you might find useful.

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson looks at the different eras in the history of computing, from Ada Lovelace, looms to transistors and microchips to the development of the web. It's a fun read with emphasis on both the technology and the people behind it.

"The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation" by Jon Gertner.

I second this, so interesting to learn about all the characters that went through Bell Labs and the variety of things they worked on.

James Cortada's books --> Before the computer --> The Digital Hand (Vol 1,2,3) - Real great detail

Also Paul Cerruzzi has written in depth on computing history I seem to recall there is also some special history group over on acm.org


has pretty good yarns about the people who worked on the original Macintosh.

"The Annotated Turing" by Charles Petzold is an in depth look into the seminal paper by Claude Shannon that started this whole "tech" thing.

I think you might have gotten that wrong...

Top five, summaries easy enough to find via Amazon:

- Turings’s Cathedral

- The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

- A Mind at Play

- The Victorian Internet

- Dawn of the New Everything

Plus two that I haven’t read but hear amazing things:

- Mindstorms

- Dream Machine

Computer: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Good on prehistory: pre-computer data processing in the 19th and early 20th centuries -- there was a lot of it! --- the founding and early history of IBM and the computer industry etc.

Computer Power and Human Reason by Joseph Weizenbaum. From 1976. Not exactly a history, but now of historical interest as the first thorough ethical and humanist critique of computing and AI, by the MIT computer scientist who wrote the original Eliza program. The chapter on the hacking culture at MIT has been widely quoted and was one of the first popular accounts of that scene.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines by Ted Nelson. From 1974. Another book now of historical interest. Self-published, with a DIY look similar to its contemporary Whole Earth Catalog. Along with advocacy ("You can and must understand computers now!") it is also an opinionated survey of the computing world right before the personal computer appeared. Nelson is now best known as the author of the Xanadu hypertext proposal, which does get a few pages here, but I think this book might be his most influential contribution.

The Annotated Turing Machine

It tells about history of Turing Machine and explains Turing's paper.

Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age.

In no particular order:

Sunburst and Luminary: an Apollo Memoir https://www.sunburstandluminary.com/SLhome.html

The Brain Makers https://www.amazon.com/Brain-Makers-HP-Newquist/dp/067230412...

Strategic Computing: DARPA and the Quest for Machine Intelligence https://www.amazon.com/Strategic-Computing-Machine-Intellige...

The Soul of a New Machine https://www.amazon.com/Soul-New-Machine/dp/B01FCTJCR0

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution https://www.amazon.com/Hackers-Heroes-Computer-Revolution-An...

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet https://www.amazon.com/Where-Wizards-Stay-Up-Late/dp/B00AQU7...

Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn http://worrydream.com/refs/Hamming-TheArtOfDoingScienceAndEn... Not a dedicated history book, but Hamming talks a lot about personal experiences and observations

UNIX: A History and a Memoir https://www.amazon.com/UNIX-History-Memoir-Brian-Kernighan-e...

Masters of Doom https://www.amazon.com/Masters-Doom-Created-Transformed-Cult... linking to audiobook because it is read by Wil Wheaton :)

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Wires-Adventures-Worlds-Wanted/...

It might be just me, but I really enjoy reading biographies of people important to the science, for example here is one for John Tukey https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsbm.2003...

Hamming's 'Art of Doing Science nad Engineering' is absolutely worth reading.

Check out “Fire in the Valley.” It’s a classic!

agreed, also see if you can find the made-for-tv movie adaptation of it "The Pirates Of Silicon Valley"

some that I read and recommend:

- Turing's cathedral

- Hackers: heroes of the computer revolution

- masters of doom (game dev history more than cs)

- The Dream Machine

- The Innovators

There was a HN post a while back about "Unix: A History and a Memoir, by Brian Kernighan". It also has a lot of good recommendations in the comment section.


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