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I find that most history books on technology appear to focus on everything but the technology. For example, books on the Wright bros. show very little understanding of the technical achievement of the Wrights. They enumerate places, dates, and trivia of their personal lives. History books on locomotives contain arcana on the numbers painted on the side, production figures, schedules, and very very little on the engineering advances. Same with airplanes. Etc.

Exceptions are rare enough to get called out for praise. A few:

Digital Apollo, by David Mindell (development of Apollo guidance and avionics generally)

The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop (technical development leading up to the Arpanet, thence to the Internet)

Colossus, the secrets of Bletchley Park's codebreaking computers, by Jack Copeland et al.

Unfortunately, there's a lot more of the technically unsophisticated junk that Knuth is complaining about, and the excuses offered here rather badly miss the point. ("The history of software is not the history of computer science". Yes, and so? How does a history of software from which all technical detail has been drained away contribute anything of value?)

The original article also calls out such praises in the paragraph starting with "The truth is that regrettably little history of computer science, whether dumb or deep, has been written by trained historians".

Let me reiterate one recommendation in particular, Mechanizing Proof, by Donald MacKenzie. This is a superb introduction to the technical subject of formal methods as well as a superb history! My only regret is that it was published in 2001 and a lot happened in the last decade.


Are there any other works like this? ... I just bought it, and I want to learn what has happened since 2001.

"Ignition" by Clark is another exceptional exception.

Ignition is fantastic and I'm continuously surprised how unknown it is amongst the engine folk at MSFC.

Wow, it's going for $3,115.00 (+ $3.99 shipping & handling) on Amazon. Put this next to Sled Driver on my list of books to buy when I win the lottery.

Would you happen to have a copy of a similarly priced-out book, "How to Avoid Huge Ships"?


Google is your friend and Bob's your uncle.

Seems the bots are getting damn creative. Perused the first few pdf links and they were all "spam" pages in PDF form, with embedded download links i don't dear follow.

Isn't algorithmic pricing fun?

Worldcat indicates that the book is available from various libraries: https://www.worldcat.org/title/ignition-an-informal-history-...

I can't help but link to a classic fight between two algorithmic book bots: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=358

While fun to watch on Amazon, this is a cruder version of what HFT does on the stock market.

Sure, but Amazon pricing is more amusing: the results are visibly and clearly absurd. HFT done right is much subtler.

Also http://www.amazon.com/The-Making-Atomic-Bomb-Anniversary/dp/...

The science was so good that I got a bad grade on my History class paper, because I focused too much on the science and not so much on the "storytelling" of history. Which apparently puts me in good company slongside Knuth :-)

I have noticed the same thing in a different context. When I was still in college, many art classes were essentially about historic trivia, paying absolutely no attention to the intent of the artists, the ideas they tried to express, and what they said about their own work. It was 99% about context and maybe 1% about content. The art was treated as a kind of societal byproduct.

Now that you have mentioned it, inventors and technology are treated in a similar fashion. Not sure why. Maybe because historic biographies adopt their methodology from general history where kings and generals are simply dots in a larger picture that does try to describe the society of the time?

Another reason may be that humans are in the end social animals...

The problem begins to happen a lot in school where history is taught the way it is. At least back home in India the way history books read, you needed to know only two things:

1. A timeline where you ought to remember what happened before and after that thing.

2. Objectify events based on causal reasoning presented in the books itself. For example "America got dragged into WWII because of an unprovoked attack by Japan that caused a massive loss of life and military resources"

And the share volume of world history covered in a year or so makes it so hard to do any justice to a topic.

Mostly related to #2, that's what most annoyed me about school-taught history. Sure, the Japanese, just for the hell of it, spend a bunch of money sending planes to Hawaii and that's how poor ol' innocent United States ended up in WWII. C'mon, why did the Japanese do it? It wasn't until years later that I learned anything about a blockade in the Pacific. I mean I can understand a little "America: fuck yeah!" attitude, but no one thought to mention that little tidbit?

The entire planet gets into a war in the early 1900s because some two-bit archduke of something-or-other got shot? WTF? Woah, back up there, Teach; you've got some explaining to do. (And when I read the explanation years later, I still go "WTF?")

Point is, if the cliche is correct then we're doomed to repeat history again and again because there seems to be little effort to explain why things happened. What the hell was the U. S. doing in some dot on the map in Southeast Asia in the 60s? Domino theory? C'mon, I doubt anyone believed that even at the time if a ten-year old version of myself is saying, "how dumb do you think I am?"

But, as you mention, it would seem that there's little enough time to teach the timeline, let alone explain the treaty situation of early 1900s Europe such that WWI makes sense.

I guess we had a pretty good history teacher. She drilled into our minds that any important historical event usually had an underlying cause, a corroborating cause and a triggering cause (and often more than one of each category). So for instance on WWI, we learnt not only about Archduke Ferdinand and the Serbian "Black Hand" movement, but also about the geopolitical frictions that already existed between Austria-Hungary and Russia over the Balkan situation, etc.

That's brilliant! How much more useful than arguing over the 'great man' theory etc. Just lay out the causes and understand how they contribute.

Btw I was at the WWI memorial in Kansas City (created just a few years after the war) and they list Darwin as a cause of the war! The leaders of the world had read his "Origin of the Species". It was variously interpreted politically to mean 'the strongest culture will win' and used by the German leadership to justify war. War was natural, it would winnow the nations down to just those worthy of survival, and Germany was the most worthy.

from wikipedia: "The attack on Pearl Harbor was intended to neutralize the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and hence protect Japan's advance into Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, where it sought access to natural resources such as oil and rubber."

The cause of war is not usually taught. It's the events that led up to war that is. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Events_leading_to_the_attack_on...

Wow, you're right. I've never noticed as such, but in retrospect very little info on history that is designed to be mass consumed actually contains historical notes that include the technological advance itself.

Does anyone know of resources (books, websites, etc) on historical advances that does actually cover the technology?

Racing the beam. About the atari 2600. Even the title is a technical treatment of the subject.

I had a delightful time reading "A History of Engineering and Science in the Bell System".

For the Wright bros. I recommend "Inventing flight" by John D. Anderson, Jr.

By dumbing it down, it makes the book readable by a wider audience == more sales.

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