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The Soul of a New Machine

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  8,003 ratings  ·  643 reviews
The computer revolution brought with it new methods of getting work done—just look at today's news for reports of hard-driven, highly-motivated young software and online commerce developers who sacrifice evenings and weekends to meet impossible deadlines. Tracy Kidder got a preview of this world in the late 1970s when he observed the engineers of Data General design and bu ...more
Paperback, 293 pages
Published June 1st 2000 by Back Bay Books (first published 1981)
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Paul Ivanov
Aug 31, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can't believe this is not required reading for a computer architecture course!

In my high school Biology, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was assigned to be read over the winter vacation. It was a bit of a stretch, but did make the class a bit more interesting. As I read Kidder describe the toil undertaken in creating this new computer - working under the pressure on the brink of insanity to find those incessant bugs - I thought this the perfect companion for the CS154B Computer Architecture clas
Dawn Lennon
Dec 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
As a shameless Tracy Kidder fan, I found this book quite extraordinary. Written in 1981, it chronicles the building of a 32-bit microcomputer at Data General. This was a time when the competitive environment for computer advancement was heating up to a furious pace. Today, these times read like ancient history, exceptt for the fact that it was the dawning of an age.

Tracy Kidder, a journalist, not a computer engineer, took on the task of capturing the new computer building process when it was par
West would sit at his desk and stare for hours at the team’s drawings of the hardware, playing his own mind games with the results of the other engineers’ mind games. Will this work? How much will this cost? Once, someone brought a crying baby past his door, and afterward it took him an hour to retrace his steps through the circuit design he had been pondering. Laughter outside often had the same effect, once in a while it made his hands shake with rage — especially if he didn’t like the design ...more
Koen Crolla
Jun 11, 2015 rated it it was ok
Books written by journalists in general and non-fiction Pulitzer winners in particular are—in my experience—universally garbage, but this was a specific recommendation, so I thought I'd give it a try. I shouldn't have.

The Soul of a New Machine describes the development process of Data General's Eclipse MV/8000, but Kidder has no particular insight into the industry or any specific aspect of hardware development. Like most journalists, he does have a tremendous capacity for taking deeply shitty p
Ben Haley
Mar 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
The Soul of A New Machine is an engineers soap opera following a rag-tag team of neophytes driven by their own Captain Ahab to build a revolutionary 32-bit computer for the now-defunct Data General in the late 1970s. Tracey Kiddler, the author, was given a rare opportunity as a journalist to follow the team's progress from within and his story shows an insiders knowledge. He breaks down the complex technical nature of the task through a series of straightforward analogies and by doing so enables ...more
Josh Davis
Aug 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is the 2nd time I've read this book and it took on a new meaning after being part of a huge AWS product launch. The feeling of camaraderie, pride, and purpose was something that I had just recently experienced which made me relate to the engineers and managers in a different way.

I loved it the first time I read it but somehow was able to love it more. At the time I didn't understand the historical context accurately. I've recently been reading about the timeline of computers which was a big
John B.
Apr 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
In the early 1980's when this book was first published, the author had to communicate the complexity and labors experienced by a group of engineers as they developed the next big thing for a second rate company. Most of those who read this book today have a level of computer literacy that may be beyond what the author's computer literacy was when he wrote the book. Consequently there are sections where the author takes great care to convey computer concepts and operations to a reader who has nev ...more
Jan 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“A feeling of accomplishment” is what Veres says he has. “But then again, there’s lots more feeling of accomplishment to go.”

The underlying theme of this book, if there is one, would seem to me to be the general feeling that your work needs to have meaning to you. This is a view, in a variety of ways, that most of the engineers seem to hold at this company. The company being Data General, a company I had never heard of, but apparently was quite a big deal in the late 70's and early 80's.

In my o
It is a testament to Tracy Kidder's skills as a writer that I found a book of ancient computer engineering to be a compelling read. The story of Data General's development of a 32-bit minicomputer was somehow rendered like an adventure story through a wild landscape filled with thrills and dangers and eventual reward.

I read this book as background reading for a trilogy of books I'm reviewing and so pleasant to find such enjoyment in my research.

Oh, and the book also won the Pulitzer Prize...
Sep 19, 2022 added it
Read this years ago. I remember enjoying it.
J. Boo
Feb 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: misspent-youf
It's the late 1970s, and minicomputer maker Data General is in trouble. Their machines are getting long in the tooth; programs are bumping up against the memory limit of the 16-bit architecture. Who could've thought that 64 kilobytes of RAM wouldn't be enough? In desperation, a team in North Carolina was tasked with building a modern, 32-bit machine capable of addressing up to 4GB. In revenge, the passed-over team in Massachusetts decided they would build another 32-bit machine, on simpler lines ...more
Josh Friedlander
Portrayal of a high-pressure hardware development project. It's...fine. Most interesting bit is definitely at the end where Kidder muses about the telos of work, and why people might voluntarily give so much of themselves for a project. Ruskin thought that Gothic cathedrals had been built by people who saw meaning in their labour, something industrialisation had taken away from them. The development of this computer was mainly driven by employee enthusiasm, and remote managers relying on the "mu ...more
Apr 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nerd-stuff
(4.0) Snapshot in time in the history of computing

Retells the story of the development of the first 32-bit minicomputer offering from Data General (I'm not nerdy/old enough to really know about them). Much of it centers on the defiant attitude that the engineers took to build this computer even when it appeared that Data General was doing its best not to make it happen (relatively low pay, few resources, few engineers, crazy deadline). But they do (only about 50% over schedule), through allnight
Brendan Brohan
Jul 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Hard to believe that it's coming up for 35 years since the events in this book took place. It was a different time. A time when the frontiers in computer hardware were open and worth fighting for; when margins in hardware were, by present day standards, stratospheric, and when computer professionals/nerds/geeks were cheap and in it for the challenge. This is the true story of a small team of people with a common goal - to give birth to a new computer that will save a company. The different chara ...more
Nick Black
Dec 11, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Murilo Queiroz
Mar 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: computer-history
It's surprising how a book from 1981 about a team of engineers developing a new computer (a competitor to the DEC VAX) is still very relevant and entertaining. Obviously the technical details reflect the technology of the 1970s (the features of the new machines - a 32-bit architecture with protection rings and support to threads are very common today), but what gave a Pulitzer Prize to this book is the description of the people involved in the development process, what motivated them and how is ...more
Jan 22, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: audio, read-in-2020
Single-digits-year-old me really liked the title. So I read it.

It's a little hard not to view this work environment as toxic, despite the obvious love the author has for the project. Sadly, a lot of the love for a project like this one became the go-to idea that eventually fueled much that is worst in the tech industry. 70 hour work weeks as the expected norm? Check. In this book we have recent-grads who are exploited for their willingness to try anything-- which has now become using interns as
Feb 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book was a great read from start to finish. It takes you through the journey that an engineering in the 70s went through to get a machine to market. Tracy Kidder writes it in a way that such a dry subject reads like an epic adventure, describing the engineers with so much detail that they feel like the heroes of said adventure. I think what I personally appreciated the most is that it's also a very good time capsule of the computer industry of the late 70s, showing what has changed, but eve ...more
Sep 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Terrific look at a piece of computer history written at the time it was actually happening. I'd just read Tracey Kidder's book about writing and as a fan of computer history thought this would be a good read. It was as a team puts together Data Generals first 32 bit minicomputer. I'd recommend this book to anyone that enjoys computer history. Well written and fast paced. ...more
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book spoke to me right from the intro.
"[The book's title implies] something about the collective character and effort of a group of people who worked only party for their pay, most of them reveling in the difficulty of their circumstances and the complexity of their task, to create something that they knew was transitory. As Camus said of Sisyphus, one must imagine them happy."
Alexander Case
May 10, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: computer-history
About 6 years ago, a sort of scandal rocked the gaming industry related to a blog post by a woman known as "EASpouse". The blog post criticized EA's labor practices at the time, which required employees to work massive amounts of unpaid overtime, as they were salaried employees. By massive, I mean about 12-16 hour days, 6 days a week, regularly. This was a big deal among gamers, because very few of us had ever had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain like this. It was likely that most of u ...more
Ana Nogueira
Jun 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
They were building temples to God. It was the sort of work that gave meaning to life. That's what West and his team of engineers were looking for, I think.

An incredible account of what it feels like to work in the computer industry, an accurate description of computer architecture (that is still relevant today), and an all-around amazing book. Touches many aspects of hardware, management and the emotional intricacies of engineering.

On a personal note, to me, it captures the essence of comput

Kaushik Iyer
Sep 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2015
This was a fantastic read. Tracy Kidder captures a period in computing history that I'd only ever vaguely heard about. The race to build (or in this case retrofit) the first 32-bit microcomputers!
This a fundamentally human exploration of how to inspire and lead people to tilt at windmills. You see how technical credibility is earned, and how teams come to inhabit a realm of their own as they approach launch.
Lots of crazy debugging stories, some fantastic character sketches make a book that is we
Jun 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: economics, history
A very nice story of how a small team of engineers works to create a new computer for Data General in the late 1970s. The computer is not particularly groundbreaking, a new 32-bit computer that is software-compatible with the old 16-bit model. But the story is remarkable for its insights into how the work got done. It explains the characters, their motivations, some technical details (at just the right detail)—and is filled with memorable and realistic anecdotes. It is well paced, well written a ...more
Jul 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I read this many years ago and many books ago. But it made a big impression on my younger self about the quest for something bigger than yourself. You don't do something for money or glory, you do it for the deep internal feeling of accomplishment. ...more
Aaron Arnold
Feb 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
There are many, many project management books that purport to reveal the ultimate system for surmounting the myriad challenges to releasing a product on-time, in-budget, and with all the promised features. It's a popular and useful genre, even if much of the material is just reshuffled and rebranded old bromides, but sometimes the most helpful and memorable way to offer project management advice is to just pick a single case study and dive in deep to explore the group dynamics that result - or d ...more
Bejoy Mathew
Aug 11, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I will put in a placeholder review for this amazing book for now. I wish I read this book when I was in college (2013), instead, I was learning about 8085 microcontroller which was also developed in 1981! Think of reading about an outdated chip in a dry format when I could have been reading about how computers are made. As a software engineer, I have taken it for granted the very machine which runs my code. Always power-hungry, I shift from a 16gb machine to 32gb machine without giving a second ...more
Nov 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is simply great. It captures working at a technology company: the long hours, no overtime, working for passion remarkably well. At the same time, it captures leadership and what effective leadership could look like without taking the credit for it.
Muaad Sucule
Jul 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Hold on to your hats, kids! We're taking a trip back to the late 70s, where there were more than 2 or 3 types of computer to choose between, but they cost half a million dollars and were the size of refrigerators. This book relates the development of a new computer at Data General, a highly successful manufacturer of the time, though forgotten today.

This is really one of those plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose things. While it is so much of its era - maybe the bronze age of the computer
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Tracy Kidder is an American author and Vietnam War veteran. Kidder may be best known, especially within the computing community, for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Soul of a New Machine, an account of the development of Data General's Eclipse/MV minicomputer. The book typifies his distinctive style of research. He began following the project at its inception and, in addition to interviews, spent c ...more

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