Book Review Gordon Laing's Digital Retro (Sybex Books, ISBN 078214330X) is a trip down memory lane. When memory was £5 a kilobyte and 64k was 'elephantine'. It's a look at forty computers from 1975 to 1988, starting with the MITS Altair and finishing with the NeXT Cube.
There is some scene setting from the days of Babbage to the invention of the microprocessor and then to the first machines, and at the end there is a 'what happened next', but it's the look at the machines themselves that's the core of the book. The emphasis is on home machines with some consoles like the Atari VCS and Mattel Intellivision and significant business machines like the HP85, IBM PC and original Mac.
Your first computer is probably there. Just the nostalgia is reason enough for this book to exist, but it's a real history of the personal computer. Gordon Laing was the editor of PCW and is a well-known technology journalist. He's now also a historian. You could knock a book like this up by trawling the web and digging out a few old pictures, but Gordon is a perfectionist. He tracked down and interviewed many of the people who worked on the machines in the book, often the founders of the companies that made them. He borrowed exhibits from computer museums and personal collections. Digital Retro drips detail, from how the designers of the sound chips in the Commodore 64 went on to make music synthesisers, to Jay Miner's dog's paw print on the case of the Commodore Amiga, and the Acorn Atom being designed with a cheap NTSC colour video chip that produced an acceptable mono PAL signal.
The book looks great with detailed shots of the machines, and many rare and no doubt cherished accessories. This is a coffee table book, designed to be dipped in and out of; there's nothing worthy or academic about Digital Retro, but you find yourself reading more and more, laughing at both the things you'd known and forgotten and those you'd never known. There is at least one fact that I thought would never be made public. Those computer creators clearly enjoyed talking to Gordon about their work twenty something years ago.
It's a great time to produce a book like this because although the computers are fading memories, the people who designed them are, in the main, still alive. Capturing what went on in the era before PC compatibility, when every time you bought a new computer you also bought - or more often wrote - new software for it, is important. It was a time when there was a real advance in computing every month. Getting it down on paper now matters, history isn't just about dead people who wore crowns. You'll find more details on the book, some FAQs and a list of the machines in the book at www.digitalretro.co.uk ®