The New Yorker magazine review of ‘Computer’

This review of ‘Computer’ by Eileen Reynolds just appeared in The New Yorker magazine, December 1, 2010:
Now, lest the beloved engineers in our lives think we’re making fun of them, on to something a bit more serious. Paul Atkinson’s “Computer“—part of Reaktion Books’ Objekt Series—is an elegant history of the computer’s journey from its “initial form as a forbidding room-sized construction” to “an innocuous box sitting on top of an office desk.” Atkinson describes all the important technological milestones—stored memory, the first mouse, the development of touch screens—but this is more art book than technical manual. (We figure that our engineer friends have enough of those.) “Computer” offers dozens of great photographs of and vintage advertisements for boxy old computers, and Atkinson analyzes these images as a means of exploring how our attitudes toward computers have changed over the years. (“Are they for us or against us?” reads a strangely explicit RCA ad from 1970.) It’s an oddly fascinating history: who knew, for example, that IBM designers were influenced by the Bauhaus school? Or that in 1966, Honeywell engineers accurately predicted that by 2001 “a complete, self-contained computing system would become so portable that it would fit in a briefcase?” Computers change size and shape so quickly that Atkinson’s book reads as a kind of trip down memory lane. Each design innovation is tied to a particular cultural moment; at various points, computers figure into gender politics, popular culture, and our most fervent hopes for the future. Technological progress and social history are inextricably linked—at last, a thoughtful conversation starter for when we meet engineers (and other scientists) at holiday cocktail parties this year! 

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