Becoming MIT


Three new books look at the story of one of the world’s most influential technological universities and its achievements.

Becoming MIT

Makers of the Microchip

The Computer Boys Take Over 

Hardbacks; ISBN 978-0262113236; 978-0262014243; 978-0262050937

In technological revolutions, everything usually moves too fast for anyone to take a look around and work out how it all happened. For that, we need some distance and the focusing lens of history. MIT Books has obliged with three books that scrutinise three contributors to the massive progress in technology in the last century, one of them analysing how the publisher's owner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, played a pivotal role.

'Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision' (£18.95) is a series of essays edited by David Kaiser published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of MIT's establishment.

Tensions between scientific and technical education slowly pulled MIT to the position it occupies now. From its origin at the start of the American Civil War, MIT was always something of an oddity. It narrowly avoided a merger with the nearby Harvard University, and grew to become the research institute for the military-industrial complex that grew up with the Second World War. This lead to tensions between its primary source of funds and its own researchers and students.

The apparent separation from the military helped MIT researchers in the 1970s become seen as trusted to weigh in on the ethical and safety issues raised by biotechnology and the discovery of recombinant genetic engineering. It's possible to see how MIT transformed from an impoverished school for technicians into a research powerhouse – and how it has dealt with problems such as gender bias that, in principle, should have been swept away by its non-traditional approach.

The people at the heart of 'Makers of the Microchip' (£18.95) by Christophe Lécuyer and David Brock broke with the conventions of business in the 1950s and wound up practically inventing a way of doing business in the technology.

Fed up with the management style of irascible transistor inventor William Shockley, eight employees at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories decided they could do better on their own. In doing so, the team caught the attention of venture capitalist Arthur Rock, who helped pull together the investment from Fairchild Camera and Instrument to get their semiconductor company off the ground.

The so-called Traitorous Eight believed that silicon was the future of microelectronics at a time when germanium ruled. They struggled with the chemistry of silicon but produced a successful design that would provide the basis for practical integrated circuits.

'Makers of the Microchip' is unusual among technology history books in that it focuses on documents recovered from Fairchild's archive and so gives a level of insight into the operations of a novel business that we rarely see. The problems encountered with the mesa transistor structure, the yield problems the Fairchildren had and their increasing dissatisfaction with the parent company's decision to take over the operation – a decision that would result in some leaving to form Intel – are all documented here.

Nathan Ensmenger takes a different tack to most technological histories in 'The Computer Boys Take Over' (£22.95) and in practice, the most disappointing. His intention was to show how the people rather than the machines they programmed made the computer revolution – a reversal of most histories of computing.

Early chapters work reasonably well, highlighting that software started as something that the great computer architects felt was beneath them, and so fell to a largely female workforce who would explain, often without success, why certain things would not work.

Ensmenger then becomes caught up, much like the public of the day, in the maverick, oddball image of the stereotypical programmer struggling against the pressure to become part of a profession. The book purports to show how the 'computer boys' have taken over in society but on the basis of the evidence that Ensmenger presents, the reader is left with the feeling that all the programmers took over was the asylum. Chris Edwards


The Decca Legacy

by RL Burr and EO Grove; £20 + £5 p&p; to order contact

Through the period 1949 to 2009 a great many radar equipments were designed, manufactured, installed and commissioned around the world by a company that began life as Decca Radar of Brixton, London. This book marks this 60-year period by recording some significant achievements of the Decca, Plessey, Siemens and BAe Systems engineers.

The authors joined Decca Radar in the 1950s and were employed by the company for most of their careers, both retiring in the 1990s. Prior to the Second World War, the Decca Company was a leading producer of recorded music and record players. It went on to produce television and radio sets. During the war, Decca was approached by the Ministry of Defence to manufacture a navigational aid that was to be used for the D-Day landings. This led to the creation of the Decca Navigator Company.

The Decca Radar Company was founded in 1948 out of the Navigator Company to address an increasing demand for marine radars.

The book is amply illustrated with photographs of the radar equipment and the people involved in its design and manufacture. The majority of its chapters cover specific types of radar, such as marine, air traffic, air defence, and meteorological. Further chapters cover site locations, display and signal processing, navaids, special products such as electronic warfare and laser systems, and research and development.

This is an interesting and informative book on the history of a well-known and important British engineering company. John Couplan


Haynes USS Enterprise Owner's Workshop Manual 

by Ben Robinson and Marcus Riley; hardback £19.99

Haynes, kings of the auto repair manual, have now applied their DIY expertise to this first technical instruction book for a fictional mode of transport. Tongue-in-cheek? On the contrary. This is serious stuff exploring every facet of the legendary USS Enterprise as well as the real science behind space travel – all authenticated by Michael Okuda, the graphics maestro behind much of the ship's designs, and official technical consultant.

The very first Enterprise was an NX-01, but the iconic vessel piloted by Captain Kirk is actually an NCC-1701. Capable of reaching Warp Five, the ship is faster than light. In fact, since nothing can travel faster than light, the ship, in effect, distorts the space around it and travels over the top in a warp-shell.

In the second incarnation of the series, the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-E – under the command of Jean-Luc Picard – had 42 levels, over a million square metres of floor space and weighed four million tonnes. It also had a detachable saucer section, which housed a large civilian population. When in battle, the saucer would detach and retreat while the photon torpedoes blasted away at the latest enemy.

Every nook and cranny of the starships Enterprise is explained here with diagrams and cutaways detailing areas like Impulse Engine Technology, how warp propulsion works and even the technical specifications of the captain's chair.

The real-science material in this volume is equally expansive, and illustrated with scenes from the various Star Trek spin-offs. They attempt to unravel the parallel universe theory, time travel, and the Holo-deck that created holographic characters who thought they were real.

Even if you're not a bona-fide Trekkie this manual is a quality read. Thomas Murphy


The Second Book of General Ignorance

by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson; hardback; £12.99; ISBN 978-05712696

Can you tell me honestly who made the first flight in an aeroplane? The Wright Brothers? Ohhh! Nooo! You've fallen into our trap!

So goes a typical 'forfeit', for an answer that the QI 'elves' (or researchers – and I was one of them several years ago) deem too obvious, and actually wrong.

Let's try again. At what temperature does pure water freeze? Come on... Every school child should know the answer to that one, let alone a qualified engineer. 0°C?

Ohhh! Nooo! Wrong again!

The main premise behind the first 'Book of General Ignorance', an international bestseller first published in 2006, was, according to QI creator John Lloyd, the simple fact that 'we don't know a millionth of one per cent about anything'. By saying that, he repeated the words of Thomas Edison, the man who, as I'm sure we all know only too well, did not invent the light bulb.

This second collection of amazing facts will once again challenge anyone to doubt his or her level of general knowledge – read erudition.

A couple of other questions to whet your intellectual appetite:

How many legs does an octopus have?

What language did they speak in ancient Rome?

What does 'QI' stand for?

The answers to all the questions in this review are: The first aeroplane flight was undertaken by an anonymous coachman of Sir George Cayley in 1853; pure water freezes at -42°C; an octopus has two legs; the lingua franca of ancient Rome was Greek. Last, but not least, 'QI' stands for 'quite interesting'.

As for 'The Second Book of General Knowledge', I designate it as 'VII' – 'very interesting indeed'! Vitali Vitaliev


The Winter of Our Disconnect

by Susan Maushart; paperback; £11.99; ISBN 978-1846684647

Susan Maushart, a journalist who lives with her three teenage children in Perth, Australia, describes the family's six-month exile from the digital world as 'The Experiment'. Increasingly concerned about the cumulative effect that gadgets were having, she made them do away with all but the most antiquated mobile phones, which she acknowledges we've just become too reliant on to be able to live without.

Any parent who's ever considered trying this with their own offspring, then dismissed the idea as unworkable within a few seconds, will be interested to see how the Mausharts coped. It's a story of compromises: computers were banned from the home, but okay at the library, for example.

The happy-ever-after outcome of this 'journey' is inevitable. Everyone learns to talk to each other again, the children pick up old hobbies that they'd dropped in favour of spending hours on Facebook, and quality of life in general gets a whole lot better. Along the way, however, Maushart backs up her anecdotes with plenty of cross-references to research into how the technology that was supposed to make our lives easier can sometimes end up taking it over.

If you think your own family could learn from an experience like this, but aren't brave enough to embark on it yourself, you could at least leave a copy of this lying around to get them thinking about how they might cope. Dominic Lenton

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