THE HARDY BOYS AND THE MICROKIDS MAKE A COMPUTERDate: August 23, 1981, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Correction Appended Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By SAMUEL C. FLORMAN; Samuel C. Florman, an engineer and builder, is a contributing editor of Harper's and the author of ''The Existential Pleasure of Engineering.'' His latest book, ''Blaming Technology,'' will be published in September.
FROM mid-1978 to early 1980, a group of engineers at Data General Corporation developed a new super-mini computer. In ''The Soul of a New Machine,'' Tracy Kidder provides a factual accounting of this achievement, and anyone interested in the annals of American industry will find the story absorbing. But Mr. Kidder, a freelance journalist and the author of ''The Road to Yuba City,'' has endowed the tale with such pace, texture and poetic implication that he has elevated it to a high level of narrative art.
In ''Literature and Science,'' a slim book published almost 20 years ago, Aldous Huxley tried to discern ways in which literary artists might come to grips with the accelerating scientific and technological revolution. Contemporary writers, he observed, have shown little enthusiasm for science, and less for engineering. Although they have been concerned with ''the social and psychological consequences of advancing technology,'' they have been very little interested in technology itself. The making of machinery has not aroused - in either writers or readers - the ''passionate interest'' that lies at the heart of creative literature.
Looking to the future, however, Huxley was more intrigued than discouraged. He viewed the difficulties inherent in wedding science to literature as a challenge to intellectual combat. ''The conceptual and linguistic weapons,'' he said, ''with which this particular combat must be waged have not yet been invented. ... But sooner or later the necessary means will be discovered.''
As the years have passed, there has been little indication that Huxley's optimism was well-founded. Science, perhaps, has inspired a few works of poetic insight; but technology, increasingly complex and impersonal, appears to be drifting ever farther away from the domain of serious literature. There is science fiction, of course, but it is usually written as superficial entertainment and set in the distant future, as if to concede that the world of complex machines cannot be congruent with the world of contemporary sentient beings.
A few successful efforts have been made. John McPhee has explored the subjects of aeronautics and nuclear technology. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in ''The First Circle,'' has shown that engineers at work can be the subject, however tangential, of powerful fiction. Robert Pirsig's ''Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance'' blazed across the literary sky, albeit eccentrically, like a comet that might not return for a hundred years. There are other instances one might adduce - for example, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, bemused by the mechanical marvels that underlie America's exploits in space. But aside from a few such tantalizing glimpses, technology is absent from contemporary literature - except where it serves as a backdrop for scenes of gloom and alienation.
But now, suddenly, in a hot, listless summer, we are given without warning (except for excerpts that appeared in The Atlantic) Mr. Kidder's splendid book, which goes far toward reviving the promise of Huxley's prophecy.
''The Soul of a New Machine'' is first of all a good story, but beyond the narrative, or rather woven into it, is the computer itself, described physically, mechanically and conceptually. The descriptive passages will not ''explain'' computers to the average reader (at least they did not significantly increase my own very superficial knowledge), but they give a feeling, a flavor, that adds to one's understanding - as broadly, or even poetically, defined. The uninitiated will find these brief passages abstruse but not bewildering, unfathomable but not boring. Those who know something about computers - and there are literally millions more such people each year - will doubtless react with a delight enhanced by understanding.
Mr. Kidder proceeds by taking the reader ''down into'' the machine, and indeed the book consists of repeated descents -not only into an environment of wires and silicon chips, but also into dark corporate basements where secret work proceeds feverishly behind locked doors, and into home cellar workshops where engineers pursue their compulsive tinkering. One of the senior engineers introduces Mr. Kidder to the game ''Adventure,'' in which the computer appears to create an underground world called Colossal Cave, through which the player must travel by typing out directions on a terminal keyboard. This world consists of mazes, twisting passages, dark chambers and rusty doors; it is populated by dragons, snakes and trolls, all creations, of course, of the computer engineers who invented the game. Reading this book is, in part, a voyage through such a subterranean world. Mr. Kidder is our Dante - not, to be sure, a mature genius artistically reconstructing Western civilization at the end of an era, but a young explorer standing on the threshold of a new age, looking for the outlines of uncharted regions of human experience.
His companions in this journey are a cadre of engineers, about two dozen in number, who, working day and night under incredible pressure for almost two years, produced the new machine, code-named Eagle. These characters, introduced in succession as their roles in the unfolding drama become significant, are surely drawn larger than life, but this is totally appropriate in a journalistic report that is also a work of imagination.
Most engineers, like most people, are anything but heroic; they are often stolid sorts who, as Mr. Kidder admits, hang calculators from their belts and wear plastic ''nerd packs'' in their breast pockets to keep their pens from soiling their clothes. The leading lights of the Eagle team, however, chosen for their brilliance, energy and ambition, are portrayed as eccentric knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological accomplishment.
Practically all of them, we learn, were obsessed from their earliest years with the need to see how things work, taking gadgets apart and putting them back together. In technical creativity they have found a fulfillment that occasionally verges on ecstacy - ''The golden moment. ... When it worked I'd get a little high. ... Almost a chemical change. ... It was the most incredible, soaring experience of my life. ...'' By plunging into the world of numbers, theories and things they appear to find a path to their own emotions. By looking outward they reach inward. In doing they encounter being. The contrast with the narcissism of most contemporary fiction is striking. Wives and children drift occasionally across the background, mellow and serene, as if intense interest in one's work were the key to domestic felicity. Again the contrast with contemporary literary cliches is remarkable.
The leader of the group is an engineer named Tom West, who is introduced in the prologue at the helm of a small white sloop sailing in rough seas. Quiet, aloof and intrepid, Mr. West is described by one of his sailing companions as ''a good man in a storm.'' (I could not help thinking of John Hersey's novel ''Under the Eye of the Storm,'' in which the computer scientist, flawed by an ''electrical intellectuality,'' disintegrates during a crisis at sea, while the hero, ''a humanist, a vitalist'' performs valiantly.) In his youth, Mr. West had been required to leave Amherst College for a year as ''an underachiever,'' and almost became a guitar-playing dropout. But he responded to the chaos around him - it was the early 1960's - by deciding to become an engineer. His friends were astonished: ''The very word, engineer, dulled the spirit.'' Yet Mr. West felt that ''in a world full of confusion'' there is satisfaction to be found in learning how things get put together, how they work. By 1978 he was at Data General in charge of the Eagle team, an austere, demanding Ahab who leads his young crew in chase of a contemporary white whale.
The Eagle team is divided into two working groups, ''the Hardy Boys,'' who put together the machine's actual circuitry, and ''the Microkids,'' those who develop the microcode that fuses the physical machine with the software programs that eventually tell it what to do. These men - only one of the engineers is a woman, in spite of equal-opportunity recruiting efforts - are fanatics but not purists. They cannot afford to be; it is crucial that they not only produce a superior machine, but also work quickly enough and cheaply enough so that it will ''get out the door'' to market. The most elegant technical solution is worth nothing if the end product is not used. This need to stop striving for perfection - to say at some point ''O.K., it's right. Ship it.'' - is a bittersweet aspect of the engineering experience that also applies to other elements of our public and private lives.
Being totally absorbed in their work, the Eagle engineers are vulnerable to exploitation, and Mr. Kidder describes in detail the often devious means by which the members of the group are recruited and persuaded to ''sign up'' - not merely to enlist, but to throw their entire beings into the enterprise. The men put up with cramped quarters, inadequate supplies, unpaid-for overtime, moody and often uncommunicative bosses, and in the distance somewhere, corporate overlords known to be ruthless and aggressive; but morale remains surprisingly high. One young engineer, burned out and feeling the pressure in his stomach, leaves suddenly, announcing that he is going to a commune in Vermont. But the others persist, grumbling and weary, yet perversely playful and tenacious, arguing constantly yet working ''in sync.'' The project becomes a crusade.
At a time when American productivity is in decline, when the nation's innovative powers are said to be waning, and nobody seems to be able to motivate himself or anybody else, the experience of the people who created Eagle merits attention. Not that life can be lived in a state of perpetual commotion. But in microcosm the Eagle team exhibits the intensity and high spirits that pontifical social commentators keep saying Americans have lost. Of course, after the triumph and the glory comes the tragic recognition that for each individual the quest must start afresh, and that life may never again be as exciting.
Near the end of the book, with the successful conclusion of the project in view, Mr. Kidder joins the Eagle group on a day's excursion from their Westborough, Mass., headquarters to a computer trade show in New York. After looking through the exhibits, the young men scatter throughout the city to enjoy an afternoon's relaxation. Mr. Kidder sits in a cafe with one of the engineers and looks out at the crowds of people and the traffic. Life goes on, he muses, and computers, for all their magical qualities, are not about to change the essence of the human condition. There has been no ''revolution,'' as was being predicted just a few years ago, and ''artificial intelligence'' still seems comfortably far from becoming a reality. The human spirit still calls the tune. And as the computer engineers return to their bus, bubbling over with the effects of their holiday and a few beers, the reader cannot help concluding that the imminence of a sinister technocracy is one of the silliest myths of our time.In the introduction to ''The John McPhee Reader,'' William L. Howarth insists that although most of Mr. McPhee's work is called ''non-fiction'' it should more properly be called ''Literature.'' That is exactly the way I feel about Mr. Kidder's ''The Soul of a New Machine,'' and I believe that Aldous Huxley - who looked forward to the coming of a worthy literature of science and technology - would agree. <123> October 4, 1981, Sunday, Late City Final Edition <127> Despite the headline on the review of Tracy Kidder
Tom West Dies at 71; Was the Computer Engineer Incarnate
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: May 27, 2011
Tom West, a shy computer engineer who became an unlikely symbol of high tech to multitudes of general-interest readers as leader of the engineering team portrayed in Tracy Kidder’s book “The Soul of a New Machine,” died on May 19 at his home in Westport, Mass. He was 71.
His family said Mr. West was found in his kitchen and might have suffered a heart attack or stroke.
Mr. West and his team of engineers at the Data General Corporation, in Westborough, Mass., developed a 32-bit microcomputer that briefly led the field of digital processing in the early 1980s, when the computer industry was poised between the eras of the mainframe and the PC.
Mr. Kidder’s book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, chronicled the team’s punishing, almost round-the-clock race to engineer a state-of-the-art microcomputer, the Eclipse MV/8000, to reach the market ahead of their company’s competitors.
In the book, Mr. West emerged as a driven, brilliant, aloof company man — equally adroit at solving the technical and bureaucratic problems facing the project — who at the same time harbored the free spirit of the self-taught computer wiz that he was.
His daughter Jessamyn West said he was driven “to understand everything.”
“He knew a million things — it didn’t matter: worms, plumbing, literature. He could give you a discourse. It seemed like he could never rest until he had a sense of control over the things around him.”
When Mr. Kidder’s book was published in 1981, the intensely private Mr. West became briefly famous. He was inundated with requests for interviews and speaking appearances, some of which he agreed to do at the request of his employers, who tried to leverage the book’s popularity to Data General’s advantage in its constant marketing wars.
But Mr. West never grew comfortable with fame. “It offends me when people think they know me because of the book,” he said in a 2000 interview with Wired magazine.
The complexity of his nature was a recurring theme in Mr. Kidder’s book, which paints Mr. West as alternately inscrutable, brutally frank, unexpectedly kind and seemingly capable of being two people at the same time.
“Some nights he would go away from Eagle,” Mr. Kidder wrote, referring to the in-house code name of the project, “and play music with friends and acquaintances, sometimes all night long, and then, fingers raw from his guitar strings, he would drive right into work and become once again the tough, grim-looking manager. One evening that winter I said to him that I didn’t think it was really possible to be a businessman and a dropout all at once. West said, ‘But I do it.’ ”
Joseph Thomas West III was born in Bronxville, N.Y., on Nov. 22, 1939, the son of an American Telephone and Telegraph executive who moved the family often. Mr. West attended four different high schools before enrolling at Amherst College, where both his father and grandfather had received their degrees. Because of low grades, however, the college asked him to take some time off. He spent a year playing folk music and working part time at the Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, where he first became interested in computers, before returning and finishing his studies with a major in physics.
Mr. West’s two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Jessamyn, of Randolph, Vt., he is survived by another daughter, Katherine West, of Stow, Mass., and a sister, Terry West, of Santa Fe, N.M.
Mr. West joined Data General in the mid-1970s, at a time when competition for new products in the computer industry was increasingly driven by the threat of obsolescence.
“My father and the men of his generation were really trying to get ahead of a rolling wave,” Mr. West’s daughter Katherine said. “They had to figure out where things were going, and my dad was really good at anticipating that, seeing where things were going to be.” While most of his colleagues scattered to other high-tech companies, Mr. West remained at Data General until his retirement in 1998 — playing against type to some degree from the Tom West portrayed in Mr. Kidder’s book, who complained about his bosses frequently and routinely threatened to quit.
In the 2000 Wired interview, he said he stayed because he liked being a big fish in a small pond.
His daughter Jessamyn offered another perspective: “My dad loved routine. He rolled his sleeves up exactly the same way every morning. He went to work at exactly the same time every day. It was what gave him the freedom to think.”