If there was one book that describes what it means to be in the trenches of a cutting edge design, that book is The Soul Of a New Machine. Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer prize-winning book has been an inspiration to thousands over the years.
Soul is the story of the creation of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, code-named Eagle. Eagle was Data General’s first 32-bit minicomputer. If you’re not a retrocomputing aficionado, minicomputers were a major industry back in the 70’s and 80’s. Starting in 1964 with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8, minis provided a low-cost means for companies to get a computer. The only other option was a huge mainframe from companies like IBM. Minicomputers chugged along until the 1990s when microprocessor-based PCs and workstations passed them by. The market, and the industry evaporated.
Today, more than 30 years later, minicomputers are all but forgotten. Data General itself is long gone, purchased by EMC in 1999. DG’s mark on the landscape has all but been erased by the swiftly moving sands of technical progress. All except for the snapshot Kidder set down in Soul.
The technical side of designing a new computer is just one part of this book. The Soul of a New Machine is three stories: the story of the engineers, the story of the managers, and the story of the machine they built. For this reason, the book has found itself on the reading list of engineering schools and management institutes alike.
The thing that makes this book appeal to the masses is Kidder’s uncanny ability to explain incredibly complex topics in layman’s terms. He manages to explain the inner workings of a 32-bit CPU, all the way down to the level of microcode. He delves into Programmable Array Logic (PALs), forerunners of the CPLD and FPGA devices you read about on our pages today. PALs were a hot new technology back in the late 70’s. They allowed the Eagle team to make changes quickly — without pulling out their wire wrapping tools.
Kidder manages to explain these things in a way that doesn’t leave the average Joe scratching their head, yet doesn’t bore the technically savvy. If he ever decides to stop writing non-fiction, Tracy Kidder would have a career writing user manuals.
The Soul of a New Machine starts in a very unlikely place – on the deck of a sailing ship during a rough storm. The scene is our introduction to the star of the book – Tom West, a manager at Data General. West is multifaceted and enigmatic to say the least. A folk guitarist who was inspired to work on electronics by the Apollo program. He was a few years too late for NASA though. Eventually he found himself travelling the world building and adjusting incredibly accurate clocks at astronomical observatories for the Smithsonian. This meandering path eventually led him to DG, where he was hired as a computer engineer and quickly worked his way up the ranks.