Cover of How Did We Find Out About Computers?
Book 299 Physics 1984
Norby’s Other Secret Opus 300
3 spaceships-and-suns
Asimov fan
2 spaceships-and-suns
Target reader

Asimov tells the fascinating story of the computer—the great invention of the twentieth century. In a sense, a person’s fingers were the first computers, for they were a way of counting. But then thousands of eyars ago someone invented an abacus—a wooden frame with wires across it on which ten little tiles were strung. By 1644, the first mechanical calculating machine—a series of interlocking wheels—was invented and this was followed by the invention of the slide rule which gave only approximate answers. In the early 19th century the first real computer was designed but it depended on rods, wheels, gears and rachets fitting each other in an exact way—and this just wasn’t good enough. A series of brilliant inventions followed, using punch cads, vacuum tubes, electromagnetic relays. Finally it was discovered that electrons could flow through silicon, and a device using silicon could do everything a vacuum tube could do. It was the great turning point in the history of the computer and led to the small calculators we see around us today as well as computers that play games, store information, do complicated bookkeeping, track satellites in space, and much more. The young reader will find this absorbing history necessary background for the technology of tomorrow’s world.

This book is a must-read for Asimov fans if only because of the delightful illustration of “Isaac Asimov at his word processor.”

Alas, beyond that, however, this book is nearly as dated as An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule, although it is nearly twenty years younger. The gap between 1984 and the present is a long, long one in the world of computers—as the phenomenal growth of the Internet and World-Wide Web attests. The “word processor” at which Asimov sits is an old TRS-80 and is hopelessly primitive by the standards of today; he talks of the incredible amount of material he can fit onto a floppy disk (some 125 pages) which is nothing compared to CD-ROMs which have been available for decades and which could—oh, if only it were possible!—fit everything Asimov ever wrote onto a single disk.

(Pardon me while I calm my fluttering heart…)

The book is in fact a perfectly adequate history of computers through the mid-1980’s, and so I would definitely not not recommend it; but last two plus decades have been wild ones, and there’s an awful lot that gets left out as a result. Any child reading this book would need to have the gap between the TRS-80 on Asimov’s desk and the Macintosh in their schoolroom filled in.

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