Book Review: Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age


This book is an expanded version of a four part BBC Radio 4 series of the same name:


which tells the stories of some of the computer pioneers in Britain, America and the Ukraine. Each is a little cameo of social history of the early post war years half a century ago, from a time when “everything you did was new, no-one had ever done it before”.

The radio series only covers some aspect of the early history of computing in the US, UK and what was post-war communist Ukraine. It also includes an episode on an unusual economic simulator that water rather than electronics . However, the book expands on this and manages to also include a chapter about the first digital computer in Australia. This coverage of the history of computing from around the world is probably the most interesting thing about this book, as it gives you an interesting perspective on the process of technology innovation.

I must admit the story from the Ukraine (“So Then we Took The Roof Off”) failed to grab me, but maybe I should go and listen to the original radio version as I suspect some of the impact of that story might have been lost in translation to the written word. However, the key message of that story was that the invention of the computer wasn’t something based on a sudden flash of inspiration – instead, it was the natural evolution of technology that created the potential for it to happen. In other words someone, somewhere was going to invent the computer at that point in human history.

Of course the commercialisation and mass popularisation of that technology is another story all together, which is touched on in the final chapter with the story of IBM (“It’s Not About Being First”).

Overall, I enjoyed this book but was also a little disappointed because there is only so much you can fit into a single chapter about each of the periods covered. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had listened to the radio show first, as the book claims to also expand further on the stories in those original broadcast rather than simply being a transcript. On the plus side, it was good to learn something new about the history of computing in places outside of the US and UK.

If you like the idea of this book, I also suggest you have a look at A Computer called LEO (the story of Britain’s first business computer – reviewed over on my old blog) and also The Electric Universe (which places computing in the context of the history of electricity).