The Internet History Book Quest

In 2017 I undertook a personal quest to read about the history of the Internet. For various reasons, I had gone through my whole doctoral program without actually studying the history of the Internet. I decided to recreationally fix this hole in my personal knowledge. Here’s a run-down in the order I read these 12 books; the order is a not-so-perfect chronological rendering of the history of computing. I should note that I used Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators as the Keeper of the Timeline; I would read a chapter until I hit a reference to a book or topic. Then I would pick up the book specifically about that topic, read it, then return to the Isaacson and repeat the process. This worked great.

There are a lot of other books about the history of the Internet; some are probably more canonical or “better.” These were the ones I chose based on previous recommendations and (gulp) Amazon/Goodreads reviews.

[Doesn’t count for this history but it did happen: I read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon first, which has Alan Turing and early computing machines in it. It’s Peak Neal Stephenson, which means I thought it was great but probably don’t want to recommend it to the uninitiated.]

  • The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by John Gertner. Basically a prehistory of the Internet, this book chronicles the people behind Bell Labs’ astonishing array of inventions in their most fruitful period (1917-1982): the transistor being paramount, with the discovery of silicon as a main component coming in a close second, followed by UNIX, fiber optic cable, communication theory, lasers, communications satellites, microwave communications, solar batteries, and light-sensitive electronic sensors in no particular order. The book is highly well-written and thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. This, in addition to having the best title of any book I read last year, is a strong history of ARPANET. Done through interviews with people who were there, the book contains a detailed story of how ARPA came to be in the late ’50s, through its work of setting up an internet, all the way until ARPANET’s demise in 1989. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
  • Dealers of Lightning: Xerox Parc and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik. This book is three things: one long experience of schadenfraude, a chronicle of intensely dysfunctional office politics, and a fascinating look at how Xerox invented so much stuff. The first two topics are far less interesting than the third.
  • Inventing the Internet by Janet Abbate. This book is the best overall view of how the Internet was born that I read. It’s well-researched, insightful, and spends the right amount of time on each subject. The only downside is that the introduction is not as compelling as the rest of the very compelling book.
  • Hackers by Steven Levy. The first half of this book is a giddy romp through the other history of computing: MIT nerds, basement homekit tinkerers, hippies, and other misfits who created large swaths of computing as we know it. The second half gets into industry stuff (Atari, Apple, Microsoft) and is less interesting by dint of other people covering the same topics. The exception is the chapter on early home computer video game companies (Broderbund! Sierra Online!), which is so weird and zany it seems more like fiction than fact. It’s like the end of the zany documentary The King of Kong; both are so surreal and over-the-top that they both have to be true.
  • Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee. The first 3/4ths are a hilariously detailed, blow-by-blow account of setting up the World Wide Web. The last fourth is a bit of a manifesto/future prediction that draws heavily on his hope for humanity to become united with the web as a catalyst for that. (He is probably sad these days.)
  • A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton. Written from a UK perspective, this is a charming, breezy, lighthearted take on the history of the Internet. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Didn’t add too much to the literature, but it would be great for someone who had no idea what an internet was–as this was published in 1999, that makes sense.
  • The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. This is a fantastic book about the history of computing if you have time for only one. Again, adds little to the literature, but Isaacson seems to have read all the literature and synthesized it. If you like this book, don’t tell any of your historian friends that you do. (You may get fire breathed at you.) Oddly, the conclusion does not really follow from the rest of the book.
  • Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum. This one’s my favorite book I’ve read in this whole quest to read about the Internet. This is really a travelogue. I picked it up while in Ireland for the Association for Business Communication conference, so it hit me at the right time to resonate. The author travels all over the world looking for the places where the physical wires, cables, servers, and tubes of the Internet are housed. It sounds boring, but trust me: he’s such an incredible writer that it was one of the most fun books I’ve read all year.
  • The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks: What is conceptual is still relevant to people trying to lead teams (not just computer programming teams; he mentions other types of organization in passing). What is historical is relevant to me because of my interest in the history of computing. Both conceptual and historical elements are very droll and funny. A+, would read again.

Thanks to Chris Krycho, who helped me shape my thoughts on these books as I was reading.

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