Book Review: What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff

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The premise of this book is that the 60s/70s counter-culture led to the personal computer revolution. I think the book demonstrated well how this influenced SAIL and how the Augment lab innovations led to the work at Xerox on the Alto and in turn became an influence for Apple and Microsoft.

Where I think the connection is weaker is around the 'Homebrew Computer Club', although I do accept that Fred Moore was instrumental in setting this up. I see this club as being similar in many ways to the amateur radio clubs that predated this, where people experimented, shared ideas and developed companies from what they came up with.

For me there are two obvious omissions in the book:

  1. There doesn't seem to be much of a connection with MITS, the company that created the Altair, and the counter-culture. The Altair was clearly designed for expansion and to therefore be a fully functional personal computer. I'm sure this would have appealed to the same sort of people who were becoming interested in electronics in the 50s and experimenting with amateur radio.
  2. The book also fails to mention CP/M, an operating system designed soley for personal computers. Its creator Gary Kildall doesn't seem to have had much involvement with the counter-culture of the time and yet CP/M was released in 1973, almost two years before the Mits Altair 8800 was released and the Homebrew Computer Club was formed.

However, whether or not the premise is convincing, the stories of the personalities involved were fascinating and are woven together with great skill. I particularly found it interesting how the events related to the wider situation in America such as the Vietnam war and the resistance to the draft. So while I am not 100% convinced by the argument that the author makes, I would recommend it to get a flavour of what was happening at that time: the excitement, the pioneering spirit and the innovations being made.

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Book Review: What the Dormouse Said by John Markoff by Lawrence Woodman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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