Inspired by Halt and Catch Fire, I’m re-reading Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. I had forgotten how good this book is. Man. The story follows an engineering team at Data General as they attempt to design and build an entirely new minicomputer in the late 1970s. Kidder won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for this book.
The Atlantic published two lengthy excerpts of the book back in 1981 — Flying Upside Down and The Ultimate Toy — but if those catch your fancy at all, I’d recommend skipping them and just read the book.
One holiday morning in 1978, Tom West traveled to a city that was situated, he would later say guardedly, “somewhere in America.” He entered a building as though he belonged there, strolled down a hallway, and let himself quietly into a windowless room. Just inside the door, he stopped.
The floor was torn up; a shallow trench filled with fat power cables traversed it. Along the far wall, at the end of the trench, enclosed in three large, cream-colored steel cabinets, stood a VAX 11/780, the most important of a new class of computers called “32-bit superminis.” To West’s surprise, one of the cabinets was open and a man with tools was standing in front of it. A technician, still installing the machine, West figured.
Although West’s designs weren’t illegal, they were sly, and he had no intention of embarrassing the friend who had told him he could visit this room. If the technician had asked West to identify himself, West wouldn’t have lied and he wouldn’t have answered the question, either. But the moment went by. The technician didn’t inquire. West stood around and watched him work, and in a little while the technician packed up his tools and left.
Then West closed the door and walked back across the room to the computer, which was now all but fully assembled. He began to take it apart.
West was the leader of a team of computer engineers at a company called Data General. The machine that he was disassembling was produced by a rival firm, Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC. A VAX and a modest amount of adjunctive equipment sold for something like $200,000, and as West liked to say, DEC was beginning to sell VAXes “like jellybeans.” West had traveled to this room to find out for himself just how good this computer was, compared with the one that his team was building.