J. Peterson's Writing About Electronics, Reviews, 3D Modeling, etc.

Category Archives: Book reviews

Delete – A Design History of Computer Vaporware

Even if “history is written by the victors”, that doesn’t mean the losers don’t have interesting stories to tell. Delete – a Design History of Computer Vaporware is the story of various computer systems that either never saw the light of day, or saw relatively little of it. This is one of the most unique computer history books I’ve run across.

The book introduces the concept of vaporware – systems promised but never delivered. It starts off with the grandfather of all computer vaporware, Babbage’s difference engine. Conceived in the early 1800s as a way to accurately print mathematical tables, Babbage kept tweaking and improving the design, instead of finishing it. The device became a moving engineering target that was never hit, with only a small section actually fabricated in his lifetime. Undaunted, Babbage went on to conceive the Analytical Engine, a full programmable computer made of shafts and gears. It was never fabricated.

From there the book moves on to the evolution of computers post WWII. The book covers the developments in Europe, in particular several early computer projects in Scandinavia I’d never heard of before. As the early mainframes transitioned to minicomputers in the 60s and 70s, the book covers machines like Honeywell’s “kitchen computer”. Featured in the 1969 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog as an absurd home accessory, the vaporware product nevertheless generated a welcome shot of publicity for both Honeywell and the retailer.

The IBM “Yellow Bird” and “Aquarius” prototypes.

Some of Atkinson’s best revelations surround the development of the personal computer in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 70s, IBM created a bright yellow plastic PC prototype called the “Yellow Bird” and another colorful red machine, the Aquarius. These were designed in response to the success of early computers by Apple and Atari. They were much more charming than the bland white IBM PC of 1981, and featured (then) exotic technologies such as bubble memory for mass storage. Alas, neither made it out of IBM’s labs.

The book reviews the influence of Xerox PARC’s research in the 1970s. Their creation of the Alto prototype with bitmapped displays displaying overlapping windows is well known. Atkinson, however, also reveals the “Notetaker”, another Alan Kay design for a luggable computer with a keyboard fastening over the display screen on the top. This design was successfully commercialized by other companies, including Osborn, Kaypro and Compaq. From there, the book moves through PCs to pen computing in the 1990s, the precursor to today’s touchscreen phones and tablets.

Atkinson’s primary focus for much of the book is industrial design; what the devices looked and felt like. Often, the work of the same designer reverberated across multiple product concepts, even if it only rarely made it to store shelves. The book is beautifully illustrated, filled color photographs of ingenious computer designs. I did find a few minor quibbles with his history (Berkeley Unix fans won’t appreciate Sun co-founder William Joy described as a “fellow Stanford graduate”), but on the whole, he sheds welcome light on a fascinating swath of the history of computer design.

Published in 2013, Delete isn’t a new book. However, the evolution of physical computer design seems to have plateaued since then anyway. Phones – everybody’s primary computer these days – have devolved into featureless glass slabs. And one of my favorite computer designs, the Macbook Air, is over a decade old now. The vaporware covered in Delete had significant influence on today’s computer products, even if they never made it to the store shelves themselves.

Book Review: The Neptune File

The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting

You might expect planet Neptune’s discovery to be worthy of a footnote, or a magazine article at most. Yet Tom Standage manages to bring alive a fascinating story with an entertaining cast of characters from the 19th century around this discovery.

Man has known about the first six planets since ancient times. They’re bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, and their movements across the sky clearly distinguish them from the stars.

Searching the sky with his advanced (for the time) telescope, amateur astronomer William Hershel discovers a seventh planet, Uranus, in 1781. This created a sensation among astronomers, and opened up the possibility of more planets in the sky.

While trying to compute the precise orbit of Uranus, astronomers noted something wasn’t quite right. It was speeding up and slowing down from where it was expected to be. Two astronomers, the brash Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier and the quiet Englishman John Adams begin undertaking the complex calculations to try and predict where the new planet should appear.

With the calculations underway, the race is on to actually find the new planet, an amazing achievement with 19th century technology. The acrimony and infighting resulting from the discovery also makes for a great story.

Book Review: Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath

What would happen to a major metropolitan area – say, NY or LA – if the electric power grid completely failed, for multiple weeks at a time? The result isn’t pretty, and this is the topic long-time TV journalist Ted Koppel covers in Lights Out. The book claims the electric power grid is subject to a uniquely new threat: Attack by cyber criminals who can disable huge portions of electric power supply remotely. read more »