I’ve recently got obsessed with reading books about the history of computing. Since then I’ve discovered fascinating stories about electrical engineering, personal computers and the internet. This is a compilation of my favorite books on these topics.
Being born in the 1990s I kind of missed out on many of these and thus I had quite some catchup work in front of me. Each and every book helped to shape my understanding of our current world and I wouldn’t want to miss any of them. Since I had been asked about my favorites a couple of times by colleagues, I decided to put together this list.
I tried to group the books into categories and ordered them by the years they cover. You can read them all from top to bottom or just pick whichever you’re most interested in. You’ll be surprised how many cross-references there are and how some of the characters and places are mentioned over and over again.
Ah, and before I forget: If you know other books that you think should be on this list, please let me know!
Laying The Foundation ~ 1925 – 1970
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner (Amazon)
Learn how a single company discovered, invented and created pretty much all major foundations for modern computing; here’s a few of those: transistors, information theory, modern cryptography, optical fibers, Unix, C, C++ (even though not all are covered by the book).
The Start of Personal Computing ~ 1959 – 2010
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution - 25th Anniversary Edition by Steven Levy (Amazon)
A great introduction to the birthplace of hacking; learn how members of the Tech Model Railroad Club discovered interactive programming on the PDP-10, made their own programs and shared them as Open Source software.
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik (Amazon)
This book details how Xerox founded the famous PARC research lab, hired the top computer scientists, engineers, developers and designers and envisioned the future almost a century before Apple and Microsoft sold those ideas to the world.
Commodore: A Company on the Edge by Brian Bagnall (Amazon)
You’ve probably already heard about or even seen a Commodore 64 computer. This book tells the remarkable story of the first company to sell one million personal computers. You’ll also learn about the MOS 6502 chip and the earlier computers: the PET 2001 and the VIC-20.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Amazon)
The official biography of Steve Jobs is a great read for two reasons: First, the story of Steve Jobs is already quite interesting. Second, the book captures a lot about the background and state of the world that he lived in.
The Early Days of The Internet ~ 1957 – 2000
Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet by Matthew Lyon (Amazon)
Learn how a government organisation named ARPA and a small acoustical consulting company called BBN invented and built up the internet of today. This book covers everything from room sized routers to the TCP/IP protocol and beyond.
The Coockoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll (Amazon)
A physicist with a passion for computers accidentally discovers a hacker in his university network and embarks on a multi-year journey to catch him. This is one of those books you can’t put down.
Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker by Kevin Mitnick (Amazon)
Kevin Mitnick tells his own fascinating story about how he managed to bypass all sorts of security systems, detailing how he explored huge telephone and computer networks and shows how he was driven by curiosity.
The Rise of Video Games ~ 1982 – 2000
The Making of Karateka by Jordan Mechner (Amazon)
This curated collection of journal entries not only captures the thoughts of one of the earliest video game makers, but also offers a very personal view on the dawn of the video game industry.
The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner (Amazon)
A second set of journal entries from Jordan Mechner that allow you to follow him on his journey of making one of the most famous video games of that time: Prince of Persia.
Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner (Amazon)
This is the story of John Carmack and John Romero, the famous founders of id Software and makers of games like Commander Keen, Wolfenstein and Quake. It is brilliantly written, very entertaining and impossible to put down.
A Special Pick ~ 1900 – 1945
Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (Amazon)
To be honest, this book doesn’t even mention computers at all. However, it is by far the best book I’ve ever read. It will provide you with an overview of society, chemistry and physics in the first half of the 20th century and sets the stage for the dawning age of computers.