The Soul of A New Machine

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In The Soul of a New Machine, Kidder accompanies a team of young engineers tasked with building a new computer for Data General. The project is led by a curt manager with a methodology he calls mushroom management (keep them in a damp, dark place, and feed them shit) that would be impossible to instate in any sensible company these days. The project is of highest significance for the company, and everything is due yesterday, everyone working in a frantic pace to get the computer out the door before their rivals within the same company beat them to it. The pressure and the intense pace of work is tangible all through the book; especially in the chapters on the debugging of the computer, one gets a very solid sense of how difficult it should be to fix horribly complicated hardware bugs under such intense pressure.

Soul of a New Machine hails from a time when the separate parts of a computer were actually built and tested by hand; a time when the CPU and the ALU resided on separate boards, a computer was debugged using oscilloscopes, and when finished, occupied three cabinets. For people of later generations who grew up with computers that came simply within a shiny black box, the story of these engineers provides a nice perspective of where the computer industry came from, and how the computer market could have developed in many other directions.

The bigger question Kidder is after is what drives young, talented people to spend most of their waking hours on a new computer. The engineers he follows all have successful academic studies behind them, and are technically inclined, having broken and fixed electrical devices since their childhood. They all admit that money is not really the driving factor (they are not getting any money for the overtime they work). What these young people are driven by is the responsibility they are trusted with (doing the complete design for a fundamental part of a new computer) which they wouldn’t get in other, more established companies, the team spirit the stressful situation leads to, and the feeling of belonging up there with the major figures of the computer revolution.

As the Pulitzer prize would lead one to expect, Kidder does a great job of depicting the daily life of the Data General engineers. Especially interesting are how the teams create coping mechanisms to make it through the grueling schedule, and the lore and humor that surrounds the people and artifacts (My favorite: “An oscilloscope is what cavement used to debug fire”). Unfortunately, the text frequently feels cold, only tracing the surface of the figures, maybe due to a voluntary journalistic distance. Some pages read like a software manual, precise and professional, but lacking the human depth and warmth. With a little less distance, it might have been possible to get closer to the real reasons people loose themselves in complicated technical projects.