THE SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE by Tracy Kidder
Kirkus Star

THE SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The design and building of a new, state-of-the-art, 32-bit minicomputer hardly seems the stuff of a gripping book--unless you've read the likes of, say, John McPhee. Kidder, who also transcends the technical, follows a team of Data General Corporation engineers through the year-long turmoil whereby one of the nation's most aggressive computer companies gets a new machine ""out the door."" En route, he says a great deal about America's computer industry; the engineering profession; and how fairly normal people cope with the intense pressure of pushing through an indescribably complex intellectual task--""far beyond what any one person can do""--under extraordinary time pressure. In mid-1978, Data General--a go-go finn that had made the Fortune 500 list in only ten years--was lagging slightly in development of a 32-bit minicomputer; and corporate management decreed a crash program to get a new machine out: two crash programs, really (Kidder is excellent at showing the subtle nuances of intra-corporate rivalry), of which the ""Eagle"" project led by engineer Tom West emerged the front-runner. In an atmosphere of near frenzy, young engineers straight out of college were recruited for the hardware and microcode teams that would turn an unimaginably complicated abstract concept into a machine. The lure for the kids was the promise of actual design work, not the creature comforts (""You're working in a place that looks like something psychologists build for testing the fortitude o_f small animals""); and they soon learned about ""signing up""--the often unverbalized commitment to carry through a project, regardless of what incidental havoc it wreaks on your life. After a while, the point of the project is as much to see what you're worth as to build ""the machine."" Kidder has a good feel for people and, equally important here, the ability to make a computer's internal workings relatively understandable to a non-technical reader (though the text does bog down, occasionally, in Boolean algebra, instruction processors, system caches, and microsequencers). The drama here is one of people under pressure, achieving ""something unforgettable in their working lives,"" and anybody can plug-in.

Pub Date: Aug. 26th, 1981
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown