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Fred Brooks talk: “A Personal History of Computers”

I was lucky to see Fred Brooks give a fantastic talk called “A Personal History of Computers.” Dr. Brooks is legendary computer scientist and author of “The Mythical Man-Month,” which, if you’re in the computer industry in any capacity, you should read, think about, and then re-read at least once a year for the rest of your career. (His newer book, “The Design of Design,” looks promising as well, though I haven’t read it yet.)

Dr. Brooks is 84, and his highly entertaining and personal talk walked us through his history with computers, which is basically most of the history of computers. Here’s his abstract:

I fell in love with computers at age 13, in 1944 when Aiken (architect) and IBM (engineers) unveiled the Harvard Mark I, the first American automatic computer. A half-generation behind the pioneers, I have known many of them. So this abbreviated history is personal in two senses: it is primarily about the people rather than the technology, and it disproportionally emphasizes the parts I know personally.

And here’s a video of the same talk that he gave elsewhere:

I took two things away from the talk:

  1. Nothing ever changes.
  2. Everything changes all the time.

Nothing ever changes. Brooks discussed two works that he called the most important computer papers ever:

  1. “Preliminary discussion of the logical design of an electronic computing instrument,” a paper by Arthur Burks, Herman Goldstine, and John von Neumann.
  2. “As We May Think,” an essay by Vannevar Bush.

The von Neumann paper describes, in detail, how modern computers work. Bush’s essay describes, in detail, how modern networks and the internet works. They were written in 1946 and 1945, respectively. They were both so fundamentally brilliant, visionary, and practical that we haven’t been able to (or had to? or wanted to?) improve much on them in the last 70 years. Nothing ever changes.

And yet, everything changes all the time. Brooks spend his early career at IBM, which designed mainframe computers. Mainframes were physically huge and economically expensive, and were bought (or leased) and run by large companies, universities, and governments. At first mainframes were the only type of computer around. If you were a scientist or researcher who wanted to use The Computer (your company or university had at most One Computer, if you were lucky!), you had to use it according to how the high priests who controlled The Computer dictated. You had to share it with every other Department in your organization.

Minicomputers changed the sociology of the One Computer when they were introduced in the mid-1960’s. Minicomputers were smaller and cheaper than mainframes, and could be bought and run by mere Departments. Minicomputers changed the social and organizational dynamics of who could use The Computer; now each department or group could have their own computer to use as they liked! This quote in John Markoff’s new book “Machines of Loving Grace” sums it up well:

Computing was now sneaking out from behind the carefully maintained glass wall of the corporate data center and showing up in the corporate office supplies budget.

The microcomputer’s introduction in the 1980’s changed the sociology of computing again, this time making it possible for a person to have their own computer! “Personal computer” is a throwaway phrase in 2015, but when the personal computer was introduced it caused a massive change in how computing, and therefore work, was done.

Brooks said that now the sociology of computing is changing again as we have smart phones, watches, and other increasingly ubiquitous computing devices available.

And yet, nothing ever changes. At each transition point, Brooks said the companies that were successful in the current popular technology were too “fat, dumb, and happy” to reinvent their products or businesses to be successful in the new technology. They were “culturally not geared for” making the transition.

He didn’t use the words “disruption” or “disruptive innovation,” but what Brooks described was popularized as “The Innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen in his book of the same name. Apparently each disruptive new era in the history of the computer came about in the same way as the previous ones.

It was great hearing about the history of computers from someone who had personally been there for most of it, and who knew many of the key players personally. I highly recommend watching the video (linked above) and reading “The Mythical Man Month,” as well as the von Neumann and Bush papers.

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