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The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  2,541 ratings  ·  281 reviews
The definitive history of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, from the author of the New York Times bestseller Area 51

No one has ever written the history of the Defense Department's most secret, most powerful, and most controversial military science R&D agency. In the first-ever history about the organization, New York Times bestselling author Annie Jacobs
Hardcover, 560 pages
Published September 22nd 2015 by Little, Brown and Company (first published September 1st 2015)
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Sep 24, 2015 rated it did not like it
What a ridiculous book. For the first 150 pages, I was completely hooked. The material was interesting and seemed well researched. The author had some opinions or drew some conclusions that I was slightly skeptical of, but they were fairly clearly labeled as opinions, so that was fine with me. Unfortunately, as I got deeper into the book, I started to see some errors with concepts I was quite familiar with already. First of all, she refers to a bombsight as a "bombsite." Bombsite doesn't even ap ...more
Oct 28, 2015 rated it it was ok
I know that Mark Twain said, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." However, I cannot find who first said, "Never let the details ruin a good story." There is not a word in the English language to describe how overly verbose this lady is. The DARPA technology really started getting interesting post 9/11 but she absolutely ruined it with unnecessary details about uninteresting people, places and things. Reading this book was like writing a paper in college. I would find housework t ...more
Mal Warwick
Dec 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
If you’re familiar with the history of the computer industry, you’re no doubt aware that the Internet was conceived and developed by a U.S. Government agency called DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

You may also know that the same agency invented GPS, the Global Positioning System. Chances are, though, that you don’t know that DARPA also invented drones both big and tiny, Agent Orange, the M16 Assault Rifle, sophisticated sensor technology, the F117A stealth fighter jet, MIRV
Barb Middleton
I listened to the audiobook while traveling 32 hours (door-to-door) from Africa to the U.S. The audio, narrated by the author, was over 18 hours and never failed to put me to sleep. Bulging with fascinating details, it lulled me to sleep with all its names and acronyms at times, but kept me awake other times. The beginning is an amazing account of the hydrogen bomb that made me wonder about the after-effects in the islands decades later.

I recommend the book over an audiobook unless you have a g
Nov 17, 2015 rated it it was ok
This is a terribly biased (Hollywood/LA Times)version of the amazing stories of ARPA/DARPA achievements and their influences on our world. Most of the stuff in here is well known. I was even involved in some of them. But the whole book is laced with the author's storytelling speculation and extreme liberal bias. Page after page of "ain't it awful". When scientists and engineers push the bounds of knowledge as DARPA still does, there are mistakes. It's always a brave new world. But thank God they ...more
Jun 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I got this free is a drawing from Goodreads First Reads.

I've always said that I'm more afraid of what the government doesn't tell us than what they do. This book just reiterates that. I found myself saying what are you kidding me many times while reading this. The crowd control ideas was one of those times. Lasers and drones are examined to an extent with some of that information being still classified so then of course the whole story can't be given. The polio vaccine problem I had never heard
very well researched and written. the flow was great and it didn't get dry and boring. Annie did an amazing job of telling a story while educating you on a fascinating subject. superbly done. I highly recommend this book. ...more
Feb 02, 2016 rated it it was ok
Repetitive. Lackadaisically edited. Could have been 200-300 pages shorter. Could have been interesting. Reads like it was written for a dozen or more magazine different magazines.

Admittedly though, it does speak about some projects in AI and bioengineering that are pretty darn disturbing to think about in a moral, ethical and humanitarian sense.
Peter Wolfley
Dec 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
I'm not sure whether to be comforted or terrified that we have a team like DARPA in the Pentagon dreaming up all kinds of wild things for the industrial military complex.

It's incredibly fascinating history and we'll only learn more about it as time goes on and more stuff gets declassified.
Jon Zelazny
May 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: war
Good, in a magazine-ish overview kind of way, which is what I was looking for.

But after calmly explaining at length how DARPA is perfectly capable of plowing billions into programs that never work, she goes full Kevin McCarthy in her last few chapters about out-of-control, self-determining, hunter-killer robots. Which don't exist! Yet!! But-- they COULD!!!
Eugene Miya
It's highly biased to IPTO (Info. Proc. Techniques Off.). She does not provide or even consider an Org chart. In this respect James Bamford's Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century (she uses as a reference however flawed) is a better organized book (even if of a different agency). It's not the first attempt of a DARPA history. Alex Rolland was commissioned to try that (at least cited in the references).

Not one wo
Sep 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Good overview of various DARPA initiatives, starting with the pre-DARPA Manhattan Project, the gadgets and social science employed in Vietnam, modern network centric warfare, etc. The discussion of artificial intelligence towards the end of the book was particularly enjoyable.

Suffers from some discontinuity, but I suppose that's to be expected when trying to tell the history of an ultra secret government organization.
Jul 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a history book?!? I gave five stars to a history book?!? I have only ever been really impressed with one other history book before but this one beats them all. While providing the detailed history of DARPA, this tome brings the various events to life while capturing the reader's interest with amazing details that are almost unbelievable. Each section held amazing information such as the hydrogen bomb information in the first section and the three foot cement walls that warbled like jello ...more
This is an interesting overview which is a bit long-winded yet leaves some things out. For instance, I was surprised that there was no mention of DARPA’s self-driving vehicle competition, a technology we currently have in most new cars. (For many of them the capability is in the machine, it just isn’t turned on yet.) Overall though, it’s pretty good.

For me the pull quote is this:
Charles Townes said...that he was personally inspired to invent the laser after reading the Science Fiction novel The

Damn. It’s the usual ‘if this is what’s unclassified, they’re doing orders of magnitude worse.’ And we punish the whistleblowers instead of those involved.

That’s where the book fell short, though; it could have delved harder on the privacy and, y’know, war crimes stuff. But that’s a different book, I suppose.

Also I learned the Pentagon has an initiative where they consult with popular science fiction writers, so the last chapter was Jacobsen tagging along with Chris Carter (The X-Files) and Gal

Dec 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: technology, science
4/5 stars

'Pentagon's Brain' is a 2016 Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. I found it to be an enjoyable read. The part that I enjoyed most about this book was the 'factoids'. It seemed like I was highlighting some interesting tidbit on every few pages. If anything, those are worth checking out (see below). DARPA has been the driving force behind some of the most revolutionary concepts in civilian life and the battlefield. There's no telling what they are working on presently...

William Schram
Jul 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
DARPA is an arm of the Department of Defense. It creates future tech for the purposes of war. It works with secrets and a lot of things that might not be cool to know too much about.

So Annie Jacobsen is an investigative reporter who was allowed privy to some less secretive secrets. She wrote some other books that I have heard of but have not read yet.

The main crux of the book is questioning the moral center of DARPA I suppose. A lot of the main ideas of DARPA have been focused on waging war and
Derek Allen
Oh, this book is crazy! The good, bad, and amazing things that have come from out Nation's obsession of not wanting to get left behind from another "Sputnik" event. I was thrilled, enthralled, and horrified by listening to this book.

Yet the most funny part is when Jacobson talks about when Chris Carter (developer and creator of the X-Files) and Gale Anne Hurd (creator and writer of the Terminator franchise) visited the Pentagon and the DARPA offices there. Of the government official who had the
I love NF on "relevant history", such as Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA and The Pentagon's Brain - recent events that are going on behind the scenes in my own country. What always makes me hesitate to read them is the political persuasion of the author. I have zero tolerance for bashing. I'm beyond over it.

The Pentagon's Brain is not a scathing indictment of either the right's or the left's exploitation of the federal money machine to conduct grand military experiments in third world co
Feb 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Although it is a necessary evil to prepare for war during peacetime to avoid being caught off guard when an attack comes, I believe there is a great deal of waste and greed happening at the Pentagon, that promotes personal agendas, and that scares me.

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. DARPA is given seemingly unlimited resources for their projects, and for the most part, Congress can't do a darn thing. When they do try to step in and claim foul play, the upper echelons of the Pe
Mr. Gottshalk
Apr 08, 2017 rated it liked it
To write a book like this required a ton of research and interviewing people and I give the author a ton of credit. Each chapter highlights a significant period of American military history from the 1950s to today, and she did a great job. The problem for me is, I'm just not that interested in every single conflict she wrote about. Nevertheless there were some very interesting chapters and I learned a lot about the people behind DARPA which ultimately aim to keep our country safe. ...more
Nate H.
May 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
Charlie Cray
Mar 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Dr. Strangelove is one of my all-time favorite movies. So when two books came out in 2017 about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (aka DARPA) I knew I had to read at least one.

DARPA is where many of the Pentagon’s most innovative, often crazy and ridiculous weapons technology R&D ideas have been cooked up.

No book about DARPA is going to tell us much about what they are currently working on -- most likely things like underwater robotics, Artificial Intelligence, cyber-warfare advance
Curt Cannon
Interesting subject matter but was disappointed in how poorly the book was edited. Lots of repeated adjectives, misspelled words, and a few factual errors.

Overall a decent primer on the history and issues this fascinating government agency has had over the past 60+ years.
Sep 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
I would not call this book interesting, but rather insightful. DARPA has always been a force in the background in a considerable number of groundbreaking inventions, some well-known and some unheard of, quite a lot of them taken for granted as of today, such as the internet and GPS, to name few. Since its origin with the detonation of the world's first hydrogen bomb and the unforeseen circumstances that followed, the agency has been at the forefront of cutting-edge science, but the fact that mil ...more
This book was a high 4. The author is well-read, she is well-informed, and she was able to convey complex and technical details into understandable terms.

I very much appreciated the historical context of the Hydrogen Bomb development, ethical implications of technological advancements, and especially the brilliance of DARPA: DARPA funds QUESTIONS and not requirements. In order to stay at the forefront of technology for the US military and government, DARPA needs relative freedom to forecast the
Teo 2050


Jacobsen A (2015) (18:22) Pentagon's Brain, The - An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency


Part I: The Cold War

01. The Evil Thing
02. War Games and Computing Machines
03. Vast Weapons Systems of the Future
04. Emergency Plans
05. Sixteen Hundred Seconds Until Doomsday
06. Psychological Operations

Part II: The Vietnam War

07. Techniques and Gadgets
08. RAND and COIN
09. Command and Control
10. Motivation and Morale
Jul 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Use any adjective that beats UNBELIEVEABLE. I'll use the word Mind blowing. It's hard to believe that this is public information. DARPA is our government's top research/engineering company. Much of its information is classified...this book tells everything but the classified information. At times it's technical, but most of the book is very reader friendly. If only reading one chapter, read chapter 24 entitled "Drone Wars". You will think this has to be sci-fi as you read about the insect-drone ...more
Steve Tetreault
Jul 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Wow - I thought I would go into this book with plenty of fore-knowledge and spend most of the reading going, "Yes, I am so well-informed that I already knew all of these 'secret' things - ha ha!"


I'm not a tinfoil-hat wearer, but I can believe a lot of what is being put forward in this book, and it's pretty eye-opening. This book covers so much ground that I had never even considered before. It's really a bit frightening to realize how many of the scientific advances in psychology and human
Harker US Library
Sep 08, 2015 rated it really liked it
The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency, is original, provocative, and unforgettable. Starting with the nuclear device Castle Bravo, to the biomedical engineering of limb regeneration, Annie Jacobsen takes us behind-the-scenes to show what military technology is really doing. As a history book, this book was far from boring. Jacobsen's writing is fluid and nothing like the writing in textbooks. The topics outlined in the book are very i ...more
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Annie Jacobsen is a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist and the New York Times bestselling author of AREA 51, OPERATION PAPERCLIP, THE PENTAGON'S BRAIN, PHENOMENA—and SURPRISE, KILL, VANISH, paperback out July 7, 2020.

She also writes and produces TV (Tom Clancy's JACK RYAN) and the forthcoming PHENOMENA (Amblin/Blumhouse), a dramatic series based on her book PHENOMENA.

A graduate of Princeton University

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