Hacking the planet

I’ve got a confession to make. Books and I aren’t as close as we used to be. Online articles catering to a slightly more attention-deficient audience have been the staple of my reading habits for an unacceptably long time. Even when those articles are presented in nice, bite-size portions, I am often guilty of skipping to the conclusions page. As my undergraduate college transcript will attest, books that don’t pique my interest after the first chapter get tossed aside or skimmed at best. In spite of that, I’m here today to gush about a book by Steven Levy that grabbed me with the first paragraph and didn’t let go until the afterword: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.

Despite keeping a casual ear to the ground, listening for books and movies based on computer lore, Hackers stayed under my radar until a recent late-night, academically required Amazon shopping spree. While browsing for cheap books to push me over the $25 total required to get free shipping, Hackers popped up in a recommendation panel, and my mouse cursor was drawn to it like a neodymium magnet to a refrigerator door. A few clicks later, the book began its journey to my mail box.

Despite sharing a similar title, Hackers does not chronicle the exploits of such pseudonym-laden teenagers as Acid Burn, Cereal Killer, and Crash Override. Instead, Levy introduces us to the progenitors of personal computing as we know it today, starring characters like Ricky Greenblatt, Ed Roberts, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak. The book ties together dozens of stories about the hardware and software hackers who helped build and shape the modern computer industry.

As I am a byproduct of 1983, this book serves in a Cliff’s Notes capacity, filling in the blanks surrounding various technological advancements and computing heroes from the late 1950s through 1982. If that seems like an odd place to stop recounting history, it should be noted that the first edition of this book was published 26 years ago, in 1985. The 25th-anniversary edition contains an afterword for both the 10 year and 25 year anniversaries of the book. It follows up on several of the original hackers and briefly highlights more contemporary visionaries like Mark Zuckerberg, who has only recently entered the pantheon of tech superstars.

The stories begin in 1958 at a quaint little Cambridge school called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (you might have heard of it before), and they follow several members of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC). This is the scenario that hooked me; why on earth would Levy be talking about model trains? This is supposed to be computer book! Without giving too much away, Levy eloquently describes how the underpinnings of the MIT model train set consisted of various components, wired in meticulous ways, which approximated the logic functions used in computing. This experience, in turn, caused certain members of the club to venture into forbidden rooms containing behemoth machines like the IBM 704, Lincoln Labs’ TX-0, and the DEC PDP-1. Many of the exploits and accomplishments of this first generation of hackers are brilliantly captured throughout the first part of the book.

Beyond Cambridge, Levy takes us to the West Coast, as we tag along with a group of hardware hackers sharing a grandiose vision of computers for the masses. The focal point is a relatively small cluster of enthusiasts who formed the "Homebrew club." This was a place where people could gather to share their hardware and software hacks, generally performed with an Altair 8800. This is the group that spawned "The Woz" and his original Apple computer. We also meet characters like John Draper, a.k.a. "Captain Crunch", who got his dubious hacking start by building blue boxes—devices used to place free long-distance calls around the world. If you’ve ever see the TNT movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, a lot of the material covered here will seem familiar.

Building on the successes of hardware hackers in the 70s, a third generation of hackers began to emerge. This time, their attention was directed toward the development of games and software to make the hardware hackers’ creations appealing to the layman. Companies like Sierra On-Line and Brøderbund took center stage, but the over-arching theme of this generation was the almighty dollar. Levy describes how some began to realize the monetary value of their innovations, and how capitalism quickly infected the formerly altruistic ethos of the hacker.

The magic of this book lies in Levy’s ability to take otherwise unsexy, awkward protagonists and make you believe that they possess almost superhero-like powers. You can imagine them exercising absolute control over every bit and transistor at their disposal as you turn the pages. I find this particularly impressive; glorifying marathon sessions of Chinese take-out, key punching, hygiene forbearance, and beard-scratching is no easy task.

The tone set throughout the book venerates the open atmosphere and lack of bureaucracy enjoyed by the early hackers. At times, it can seem like a 477-page advertisement for the open source movement, championing the virtues of quality work and sharing over dollars and cents. Regardless of your stance on the topics of patents and licensing agreements, this book is worth a look, if only to help one understand why many people today choose to donate countless personal hours providing us with open source (and hackable) options. This book attempts to elevate the word "hacker" above the negative connotation it too often carries, giving the term back to those who see added potential in something and go hands-on to unlock it.

As much as I enjoyed the read, I am unsure of how well the material in this book will jell with audiences much younger than myself. I’ve been around just long enough that my first computing experiences took place on a combination of Apple ][s and IBM PCs running DOS. Much of the pre-Macintosh era discussion in the book brings back fond memories of "Inserting Disk 2" playing Oregon Trail and annoying family members with the "beep" command on our IBM PC-AT at home. Those who grew up in a world without command prompts and can’t discern a PEEK from a POKE may find it harder to connect as deeply with the book as I did. Ultimately, however, Levy presents his stories in a way that any nostalgic computer geek should be able to appreciate.

In the technology industry, we are sometimes fixated on the future—searching for the next big thing or drooling over some next-generation gizmo. Occasionally, we need to take a deep breath and look back at our roots to see just how far we’ve come. That is what this book is to me: a glimpse into the past, an important perspective that shows where we’ve been, what we’ve achieved, and what remains to be conquered with our digital tools. It makes me truly appreciative of what we have today and of those who created the tools, which in turn created more tools, which we use today to craft even more tools for the future.

If you’ve already discovered this book (you’ve had 26 years for goodness’ sake), I’d love to hear about your favorite parts or experiences using some of the technology discussed along the way.

Comments closed
    • Aphasia
    • 8 years ago

    Sounds like its about time for me to re-read this one, was about 10 years ago or something when I read it the first time. Your blog post pretty much sums it up, it’s a great read for filling in some of the blanks of computer history in an entertaining manner. And having started with modems, although only 2400baud for me… you kindof appreciate how far we have come as a continueation of reading the book.

    • Eaving
    • 8 years ago

    No love for Lord Nikon or Phantom Phreak?

    • bdwilcox
    • 8 years ago

    Two words: [b<]Beagle Bros[/b<]

    • Buzzard44
    • 8 years ago

    But what role does Angelina Jolie play?

      • 5150
      • 8 years ago

      The sexy as hell one.

    • dashbarron
    • 8 years ago

    Two things.

    One, for a new guy you are well on your way to out-blogging all the other TR staffers. Go David go!

    Two: [quote<]. It makes me truly appreciative of what we have today and of those who created the tools, which in turn created more tools, which we use today to craft even more tools for the future.[/quote<] This sounds like a promo for Minecraft....

      • cmoorepc
      • 8 years ago

      definitely agree with 1st statement. i hate reading and he lured me in

    • Ditiris
    • 8 years ago

    Well, that’s an odd coincidence. I’ve got a much older paperback edition of this book which I’ve had forever and finally got around to reading about a month ago, although I abandoned the book after about a hundred pages. I disliked the hero-worship tone Levy used and grew bored with the smattering of inane characters and exploits. If you’re going to go into that level of detail, at least show us some code. I felt like he was describing every cook that ever baked a cake, marveling at the bowls and spatulas they used and invented for their new tasty treat. I get it, you like cake and wish you could make cake.

    I don’t care, I don’t need to hear about every single baker you’ve ever heard of. Let me try the damn cake, or give me a few of the best recipes so I can judge for myself. There just wasn’t enough substance there for me.

    I thought [i<]Accidental Empires[/i<] by Cringely captured the same period of innovation and experimentation much better. [i<]Hard Drive[/i<] by Wallace and Erickson and [i<]The Mythical Man-Month[/i<] by Brooks are also excellent books of the same genre.

      • cactusminer
      • 8 years ago

      I agree with Hard Drive by Wallace and Erickson, definitely the best book about the first 15 years of Microsoft. Paul Allen’s new book fleshes out other parts of MS’s early years nicely.

      Of course Fire in the Valley is by far the best book about the creation of the PC and the Altair to Macintosh era. Get the revised edition!

      • jpostel
      • 8 years ago

      If you want code, you can get back issues of 2600 and the like. I still have jammer and jack the ripper’s phreakers manual (revised in ’87).

    • UberGerbil
    • 8 years ago

    Sheesh, I read this when it was newly out in hardcover. Has it really been [i<]that[/i<] long? I still have my Apple ][+! I remember chatting with folks on USENET about trying get people to use "cracker' for black hats and reserve "hacker" for the good guys (back when you could pretty much read all of USENET in an evening, even with a 300 baud modem) but that ship had already sailed.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      Holy crap grampa, stand right there. I’ll get you a chair.

        • bdwilcox
        • 8 years ago

        Yeah, well you better get one for me, too, young man. I still have my Apple //c IN ITS ORIGINAL BOX with all of its documentation, including low level hardware diagrams Apple used to sell in ringed binders. I also have a mighty collection of Apple //c games including a good number of Infocom games in their original boxes with all the fun chachkas that came with them (plus a large number of pirated games cracked by Pirate’s Cove). Best of all, I have all of my shape table diagrams and huge printouts of assembly I used to program that 65C02 with. [i<]<Insert Nostalgic sigh>[/i<]

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This