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Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age [Paperback]

Mike Hally
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

3 April 2006
By the 1960s, IBM had beaten all rivals and dominated the world computer market. But IBM came late to the race. From the 1930s to the 1960s, small, independent teams on four continents worked on the development of the first modern computers. From interviews with surviving members of those original teams, the author builds up a picture of the eccentric men and women who laid the foundations for the computerised world we now live in, recreating the atmosphere of those early days. Some of the early projects, such as "LEO", the Lyons Electronic Office, developed by the catering company J Lyons and Co in London in the 1940s, are now famous, others, such as the RAND 409, constructed in a barn in Connecticut under the watchful eye of a stuffed moose, almost unknown. This fascinating and engaging book describes these and other projects that came and went in the years before IBM ruled the world, including the Phillips Hydraulic Economics Computer, or MONIAC, which perfectly demonstrated the workings of the economy by way of coloured water flowing through plastic tubes and the UNIVAC, which became a household name when, live on television, it correctly predicted the results of the 1952 US presidential election.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; New edition edition (3 April 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862078394
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862078390
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 19.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 625,885 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am a radio producer, photographer and author with a first career of 17 years as an aerospace engineer and over 20 years since as a maker of features, documentaries and other programmes mostly for BBC Radio 4. And that is how my first book "Electronic Brains" came about -- in 2001 I made my first series as an independent producer, one of four people who had just set up "Pennine Productions".

That series was four quarter-hour programmes about some of the early computer pioneers, aimed at the general listener and much more of a social history about these people and the sheer enthusiasm and inventiveness they brought to their work. A publisher from Granta Books heard the series and suggested I write a book, and that is what happened.

Mostly since then I've mostly been making radio programmes, now for our successor company "Square Dog Radio", though I'm hopeful of writing another book soon, on an entirely different subject. More news soon, maybe!

Product Description


‘A readable and very human account that brings alive the history of this now ubiquitous technology’ -- Guardian

About the Author

Mike Hally trained as an electronics engineer and worked at British Aerospace for seventeen years. He started working for Radio 4 in 1989 as a freelance, where he still works today. He later formed Pennine Productions, producing programmes for Radio 4.

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One winter evening in 1937 a professor from Iowa State College went for a drive along the open roads across the eastern half of the state into neighbouring Illinois. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dawn of an era 10 Nov 2006
This is the exciting history of the birth of computing. When a new field of knowledge opens up new possibilities, anything can happen---water computers, tea shops at the cutting edge of technology and, as often happens with technology, parallel development in separate parts of the word; Britain, the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and (a suprise to me) Australia.

This account is full of suprises about the earliest electronic computing machines, with colourful accounts of the pioneers in the field do amazing things that no-one had previously even thought of. A golden age of innovation, both technically and commercially with visionary business executives seeing the potential for the new technology---for example, Lyon's tea shops.

It is a fascinating history, which Mike Hally appears to relish. He avoids technical details of these early computers, but blends in enough information to appreciate the difficulties faced by the engineers who were, effectively, inventing the modern world. He also tackles the more controversial subject of priority of invention, which still rages today, without passing judgements but sticking to the facts.

It is hard to know what it must have been like in those exciting times, but Mike Hally captures a flavour of it in the interviews with some of those involved with these early machines, and one wonders if such a revolutionary step could ever now be taken in quite the same way.

A book not just for the student of computing history, but an accessible history of pioneering, vision and invention.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable overview of the history of computing 30 Dec 2010
By gerryg VINE VOICE
It often appears that events in history seem to depend on one person: "X" discovered "Y" or invented "Z". Closer investigation reveals that things are more a product of the time with much more collaboration and/or parallel development without any single person able to truly claim pre-eminence. More about evolution than revolution.

This history of the origins of modern computing illustrates the point admirably. It captures the international developments, the personalities and attitudes perfectly. As ever, not every decision was technology-led so, for example Australia abandoned its computer industry (who knew they had one?) in an assumption that its comparative advantage lay elsewhere and IBM's success appears to have resulted from some major entrepreneurial risk taking rather than because they had a business plan the bank manager liked.

It's not a heavy duty read and I'm not sure it needed the appendices on base arithmetic. The Soul of a New Machine and A Computer Called LEO are better reads but they focus on a single aspect. A missing chapter might have discussed the Transputer, another ARM and its close relationship to the BBC Model B. Both were British 'contenders' with the latter proving to be remarkably successful (both were novel, the former an evolutionary failure) in modern computing devices.

I was also unclear why Ada Lovelace required such careful character assasination. On the evidence she seems to have been a visionary. After that it's just hard work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Enjoyable! 1 July 2010
By spirit3
I bought this book from Mike Hally at the Vintage Computer Fair at Bletchley Park (sorry Amazon!). It's made the daily commute an enjoyable experience! I partly agree with a previous review; covering each country individually does make it feel a little disjointed but I don't think this detracted from the enjoyment. A great book covering not only the hardware but also the people and personalities behind the machines. Recommended.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but disjointed 11 Sep 2009
Lots of good stories from the early days of computing but by dealing with a single country at a time it feels like a set of individual essays rather than a complete overall review
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Slim Volume 21 Jun 2010
Electronic Brains by Mike Hally would have been best left as a series of Radio 4 programmes that might have provided some easy listening. Unfortunately, as a book it does not have sufficient content to engage the reader
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