October 06, 2022


The History of the Computer: People, Inventions, and Technology That Changed Our World. By Rachel Ignotofsky. Ten Speed Press. $19.99.

     It was Charles Babbage, one of the many visionary thinkers and tinkerers mentioned in The History of the Computer, who said that the path of discovery’s first steps “are those which add most to the existing knowledge of mankind.” On that basis, it is the very early illuminations discussed in Rachel Ignotofsky’s fascinating book that deserve the greatest praise and most attention, which they rarely receive for the simple reason that they are so commonplace, so much a part of the fabric of society, that even thinking of them as “discoveries” is very difficult. Thus, for all the attention that Ignotofsky gives to topics about which her target audience of young readers will likely be interested, such as video games and cellphones, it is the first steps toward those modern inventions that added most to human knowledge and capabilities. Those steps include the first abacus (around 2500 B.C.E.) and the first use of zero as a number (around 683 C.E.).

     To Ignotofsky’s credit, she does include these extremely crucial items in her book, not dwelling on them but not minimizing their importance, either. And that is a major strength of The History of the Computer, which shows that without knowledge and comprehension of mathematical elements that now seem utterly mundane, the wonders made possible by computers would be wholly impossible. Indeed, without computers – the word originally referred to human beings whose job involved mathematical calculations – the machines we now call computers would not exist. Of course, the annoyances associated with computers would not exist, either: Ignotofsky points out that the first message we would now describe as spam dates to 1864 (it was an advertisement for a dental group, sent by telegraph).

     Ignotofsky’s own communicative method, which involves very extensive illustrations accompanying clearly written textual material, helps make The History of the Computer fascinating – and worthwhile for adult readers, not only the younger people for whom it is intended. Adults will likely be especially interested in learning, for example, who coined the term “software engineer” (Margaret Hamilton, born 1936) and who pithily observed that “the most damaging phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way’” (U.S. Navy Admiral Grace Hopper, 1906-1992). Younger readers may be more likely to gravitate to information on how now-everyday technological innovations came to be: the first commercial computer using a graphical user interface (which Ignotofsky, for some reason, calls a “graphic” user interface) was the Xerox Star in 1981; flash memory dates to 1984; the first successful tablet computer was created by the same man who invented the Palm Pilot (Jeff Hawkins, born 1957); the World Wide Web did not exist until 1990, and the first website was published in 1991; the first pop-up ad appeared in 1997; and much, much more. The quality of Ignotofsky’s explanatory writing can be seen throughout her discussions of these and many other elements of The History of the Computer. For instance, “The terms internet and Web are often used interchangeably, but they are two different things! The internet is the physical network of connected computers, with standards of how data moves [sic] across that network. The Web is an application that runs on top of the internet and is a collection of pages, documents, and resources that are all linked together in a ‘web’ of hyperlinks and addresses.”

     This sort of clarity generally overcomes the book’s occasional shortcomings, such as using the word “data” as a singular noun (a common enough error, but not one expected in a book on computer history) and, at one point, specifically highlighting the design and structural components of “the intergrated [sic] circuit.” It also helps that Ignotofsky comes at various topics from different angles, sometimes going through the same material in different contexts and thus making it easier to understand. For instance, at one point she explains and illustrates the structure of Boolean algebra and the logic gates that, in effect, use it for on/off switches; later, she provides a timeline that includes George Boole’s publication of the way Boolean logic works – and, again, the way logic gates are derived from it.

     The history of the computer is not, in the final analysis, the history of a machine. It is the history of humans’ relationship with numbers, with using those numbers to reflect the world and make predictions about it and create advances not only in scientific areas but also in thinking processes themselves. Most of the people discussed by Ignotofsky in her book, even the ones who were avowed tinkerers, were thinkers above all, figuring out how things could be done differently (and hopefully better), and what sorts of new things might be just over the horizon if they took those all-important first steps on the path of discovery. In fact, in a sense, all steps on that road are first steps: one person takes some, and then another takes his or her own first steps, and so on. The marvels of modern computers are many, but without the Sumerian abacus and the exchange of ideas and thought patterns made possible by the Silk Road, none of those marvels would be possible. The History of the Computer is especially attractive for the way it invites young readers to take their own first steps into a world that they themselves will help make and remake.

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