The Soul of a New Machine

A guy gets unlimited access to the geek squad putting together Data General’s first 32 bit computer in the late 1970s, cobbles together an in-depth report of the drama, the glory, the fights, the jokes that swirl around the machine’s creation. Methinks Kidder places himself on stage a bit too much, instead of reporting from the shadowy wings. Do we really need to know that the author was falling asleep in West’s guest room late one night only to hear the soft strains of a folk song accompanied by a guitar as West noodled away in the living room? Kidder frequently includes his own dialogue in the text, to show us how pithy, witty, and clever his questions and comments are. Perhaps my biggest beef with the book is the hook placed in the opening chapter, the way West is described as a mysterious man on board a yachting expedition that met a storm, the author leads you to think something big/dramatic/violent/chaotic will happen to West. This layer of tension spools throughout the chapters, West always one conversation away from walking away from the project to go make music somewhere. Instead, West marshals the team to create this groundbreaking machine, and then accepts a job in BizDev wearing a suit, joining the executives upstairs. Disappointing. Kidder’s a decent writer, but wow too much technical detail about the inner buildings of an early computer. He does capture the spirit of the place and time, with engineers working grueling hours to accomplish an impossible deadline, working for pride instead of money. In the end, Kidder works up the nerve to tell West “it’s just a computer, it’s really just a small thing in the world.” Through all the stress and strain of my career I’ve been cheered by the remark that “we’re not saving lives here,” a close echo to this sentiment.