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Books You Should Own: Core Memory

Posted on 10th Mar 2009 at 10:09 by Alex Watson with 15 comments

Alex Watson
A few years ago, I was helping a friend build a PC with a selection of left-over, scavenged and second hand bits, including a fairly crusty Epox motherboard. We’d spread all the components over the kitchen table and work surfaces and were just about to start the build when his Dad returned from work. My friend's father spent almost his whole career working for BT, beginning as an apprentice engineer tinkering around with old call exchanges, before progressing onwards and upwards into projects, paperwork and management.

Rather than being upset with the fact we’d covered the kitchen with PC kit, he was fascinated by it - particularly the motherboard. Having cut his teeth as an engineer on analogue exchanges, a six-layer PCB bristling with capacitors, ICs and silver circuit traces was, to him, a slice of pure future (even though neither my friend nor I had given it much consideration, beyond hoping it would still POST and get us into Battlefield 1942).

Just as he found a run-of-the-mill Athlon 64 motherboard fascinating, I find old analogue computers amazing. Last year I went to Bletchley Park and saw their Colossus rebuild running; I also picked up a copy of a book called Core Memory, a 160-page look back at the time when building a PC was a good deal more complex than dropping a CPU into a ZIF socket.

Books You Should Own: Core Memory Book review Core Memory
Books You Should Own: Core Memory Book review Core Memory

Beginning with the computers that were built during World War 2, Core Memory traces the evolution of computers, progressing through the mainframes of the 50s and 60s, before finishing up with the kit computers of the 70s and early 80s. While each computer gets a little snippet of text, the book focuses on Mark Richards’ photographs. They’re beautifully constructed – well lit, intriguingly framed and bring out the strange, severe beauty of early computers.
Books You Should Own: Core Memory Book review Core Memory
Some shots give you a sense of the size and presence of these room-filling mainframes (difficult to comprehend when you can carry a system ten times as powerful in your pocket); some focus on the complex panels of buttons that comprised the interface.
Books You Should Own: Core Memory Book review Core Memory

Best of all though, are those that pick out the details, the strange phrases such as ‘interface message processor’, ‘sense amplifier module’ which were stencilled on the sides of the machines.
Books You Should Own: Core Memory Book review Core Memory

You come away with a real sense of just how hard it was to create the computer, how massive a task it was to get a machine to compute 1s and 0s at speed, to invent CPUs, RAM, motherboards, storage... and equally, why exactly it proved such a compelling dream for those early engineers.

You can buy Core Memory for under £15 on Amazon; to anyone who appreciates hardware, that’s money well spent.

Books You Should Own: Core Memory Book review Core Memory

15 Comments

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CardJoe 10th March 2009, 11:16 Quote
Other books you should own: Masters of Doom, the story behind id Studios.

Oh, and The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. :p
Gareth Halfacree 10th March 2009, 11:17 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
Oh, and The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. :p
I liked Tiger, Tiger best. Until I lent my copy to a bloke in a pub, and never saw it (or him) again.
CardJoe 10th March 2009, 11:21 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gareth Halfacree
I liked Tiger, Tiger best. Until I lent my copy to a bloke in a pub, and never saw it (or him) again.

Tiger, Tiger? Wasn't that published under the name 'The Stars My Destination'? That's the title of the copy I have anyway. And you're right, that is a totally awesome book too.
azrael- 10th March 2009, 11:30 Quote
While we're on the subject of sci-fi I can heartily recommend "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson. One of the best books I've ever read.
Jamie 10th March 2009, 11:36 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
Other books you should own: Masters of Doom, the story behind id Studios.

Borrow please :)
phuzz 10th March 2009, 11:53 Quote
Any Charlie Stross ++recommend
Tyrmot 10th March 2009, 12:18 Quote
I believe Tiger Tiger was simply it's original name before being republished. Or perhaps Stars was the US titles... I think I prefer it in any case. In any case, both of Bester's classics are absolute masterpieces and worth a read by anyone, I actually lent them both out to friends recently who might not normally read SF and they couldn't believe how good they were! I glad bit-tech is frequented by people of such good taste :)

For a more recent slice of cyberpunk, Richard Morgan's 'Altered Carbon' is fantastic.
Bauul 10th March 2009, 14:15 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jamie
Quote:
Originally Posted by CardJoe
Other books you should own: Masters of Doom, the story behind id Studios.

Borrow please :)

As far as I recall, Joe doesn't own Masters of Doom, he nabbed it off me once and has been fraudulently living the limelight ever since.
Krikkit 10th March 2009, 14:19 Quote
That looks like a seriously good book. It's on the list.
CardJoe 10th March 2009, 14:39 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bauul
As far as I recall, Joe doesn't own Masters of Doom, he nabbed it off me once and has been fraudulently living the limelight ever since.

Fine - no wedding present for you!
Jamie 10th March 2009, 17:59 Quote
Too many pictures and not enough words, equations and diagrams in that book by the looks of it.
mooseguy 10th March 2009, 18:08 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jamie
Too many pictures and not enough words, equations and diagrams in that book by the looks of it.

That's what I was thinking =(
fodder 11th March 2009, 15:48 Quote
I used an analogue computer system in a colour separation scanner for lithographic printing. It was the nicest and most 'human' machine/computer I ever operated.

Due to the analogue nature of the components, and the huge integration of the controls, ti certainly had a character of it's own. 'my' machine was individual, subtely different in the way it responded to input and output to others I had occasion to use.

I miss that machine, bizarrely you really got a feeling of empathy with it. Now we are stuck with a few 'os' interfaces and that's it.
Otto69 18th March 2009, 18:11 Quote
I worked on a device driver for an Interface Message Processor (aka. an Imp). These were bit-serial devices with a complex hardware buffer reservation scheme that sort of pre-dated routers. The Internet backbone ran on them. They were made by BBN and had blinking lights on the front like all the best sci-fi gear :)
brave758 24th April 2009, 19:20 Quote
Silicon snake oil - Second thoughts on the Information Highway. also a very good read a book about the internet wrote in 1995 but its funny how relevant it still is now and how things have changed.
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