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Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age

Michael A. Hiltzik · 18 HN comments
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Amazon Summary
In the bestselling tradition of The Soul of a New Machine, Dealers of Lightning is a fascinating journey of intellectual creation. In the 1970s and '80s, Xerox Corporation brought together a brain-trust of engineering geniuses, a group of computer eccentrics dubbed PARC. This brilliant group created several monumental innovations that triggered a technological revolution, including the first personal computer, the laser printer, and the graphical interface (one of the main precursors of the Internet), only to see these breakthroughs rejected by the corporation. Yet, instead of giving up, these determined inventors turned their ideas into empires that radically altered contemporary life and changed the world. Based on extensive interviews with the scientists, engineers, administrators, and executives who lived the story, this riveting chronicle details PARC's humble beginnings through its triumph as a hothouse for ideas, and shows why Xerox was never able to grasp, and ultimately exploit, the cutting-edge innovations PARC delivered. Dealers of Lightning offers an unprecedented look at the ideas, the inventions, and the individuals that propelled Xerox PARC to the frontier of technohistoiy--and the corporate machinations that almost prevented it from achieving greatness.
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
Showstopper![1] covers Windows NT in a similar vein and Dealers of Lightning[2] is another good read that goes into some if the really interesting history of Xerox PARC.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Showstopper-Breakneck-Windows-Generat...

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer...

I kinda feel like Dealers of Lightning should be required reading at this point[1], both for the breadth of invention and how they squandered it.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer...

actually, i like "Michael A. Hiltzik’s Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age" (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0887309895/) much better than the wizards book.

it is quite a long read, but is very good.

lordgrenville
I've read both. They're about different topics. Wizards is about the development of the internet. I found it slightly more fun reading, but both books are highly worthwhile, if you're interested in the history of technology.
signa11
hmm, me too :o)

but from reading the 'dealers of lightning' it was kind of apparent, that parc had a huge influence on development of internetworking-protocols than is widely known f.e. we must surely remeber about the 'parc universal packet' aka PUP (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PARC_Universal_Packet) as a precursor to the much beloved tcp/ip protocol suite etc etc.

unfortunately, i didn't really enjoy the 'wizards' book as much as i would have really liked...i had the distinct impression that it was kind of 'jumping all over the place'

I'm currently in the process of reading "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age,"[0] and I highly recommend it. I've always viewed Xerox as primarily an office printer company, and the fact that they innovated/invented many of the systems that we still use today (ethernet, layered windows on an operating system, the mouse, bitmap displays) and then failed to market these technologies, makes for a really interesting read.

[0] - https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer...

krylon
I agree, it is a great book!
kar1181
Agreed, it's one of my favourite books of all time.
I'm a huge fan of the biography Jean Renoir (the acclaimed film director) wrote about his father, Auguste Renoir (the acclaimed Impressionist painter), Renoir, My Father - https://www.amazon.com/Renoir-My-Father-Jean/dp/B001MPDDME

For a gripping tale of technology and hacking, The Cuckoo's Egg never fails: https://www.amazon.com/Cuckoos-Egg-Tracking-Computer-Espiona...

And, as someone reminded me in the thread about Xerox and Fujifilm, Dealers of Lightning tells the story of Xerox PARC, the Alto, Steve Jobs' visit, etc: https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer...

Famicoman
I have read Masters of Doom and both The Cuckoo's Egg and Dealers of Lightning and these recommendations are spot on. I'd love to reread all of these soon, especially Dealers of Lightning.

Something similar but perhaps a bit drier may be Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely about the personal computer wars. And yes, that's the same Cringely from the Triumph of the Nerds documentaries.

I also do not recommend David Kushner's Prepare to Meet Thy Doom and The World's Most Dangerous Geek audiobooks which I believe are anthologies of loosely related articles he has written over the years. The prose was a little too purple for me.

More detail on changing the system while running, and a comment at the bottom from Alan Kay retelling this same story:

http://www.righto.com/2017/10/the-xerox-alto-smalltalk-and-r...

"Dealers of Lightning" also a has a chapter on Job's visit: https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer... Try the "look inside" for "Steve Jobs Gets His Show and Tell".

Ever hear of the laser printer, local networking and the GUI? https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer...
Apr 15, 2017 · kar1181 on Bob Taylor Has Died
Taylor had an immense impact both direct and indirect on the nature of computing as we know it today, it's a little sad he's not better known.

Dealers of Lightning does a great job detailing his role in it all - https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer... that along with soul of a new machine really capture the spirit of that 60s/70s generation of computing.

bluetwo
I kind of feel that way about Von Neumann, too. Huge vision and influence but too normal to write a dramatic screenplay about.
patkai
His daughter's book The Martian's daughter is pretty good, though.
bluetwo
Interesting.
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rafaelferreira
Yet another book showcasing Bob Taylor's impact on personal computing and networking is The Dream Machine https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Machine-Licklider-Revolution-Co... .

This one tells the story from the precursors to time-sharing to PARC, using the figure of J.C.R. Licklider as a pivot, and was recommended by Alan Kay as better than Dealers of Lightning. I personally enjoyed both.

pmcjones
The Dream Machine was Taylor's own favorite of this genre.
alankay1
And of most of the participants at ARPA-IPTO and PARC. "Dealers of Lightning" was too much of the "hero's journey" trope, and also very confusing in sequence (even to those of us who were there). Both books missed how and why researchers cooperated and coordinated across projects, but "Dream Machine" is much more clear and generally more accurate.
I was working as my department's internal R&D director a couple years ago and I was interested in the first question as well. Note that that position probably sounds way more important than it actually was. Coincidentally, it was at one of the places Alan Kay mentions in an answer to the linked Quora question.

I pretty much focused on 3 different entities: DARPA, Xerox PARC, and Bell Labs. These are the books I read to try to answer that question:

[1] Dealers of Lightning. https://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer... [2] The Department of Mad Scientists. https://www.amazon.com/Department-Mad-Scientists-Remaking-Ar... [3] The Idea Factory. https://www.amazon.com/Idea-Factory-Great-American-Innovatio...

I personally thought that having access to a diverse set of disciplines & skills and a reasonable budget were two of the more important things.

Oct 21, 2015 · striking on Sam Altman's Twitter AMA
For the question "What are some of the best books to learn from that you recommend for a young startup founder?", I decided to transcribe the answers.

.

"Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future" - http://www.amazon.com/Zero-One-Notes-Startups-Future/dp/0804...

"Republic" - http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Hackett-Classics-Plato/dp/087... (classic, feel free to grab a PDF)

"The Principia : Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy" - http://www.amazon.com/Principia-Mathematical-Principles-Natu... (classic, feel free to grab a PDF)

"Thinking, Fast and Slow" - http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/...

"Molecular Biology of the Cell" - http://www.amazon.com/Molecular-Biology-Cell-Bruce-Alberts/d... (different edition, forgive me; free through NCBI, thanks jkimmel!)

"Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age" - http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...

"The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer" - http://www.amazon.com/Supermen-Seymour-Technical-Wizards-Sup... (note: "that one's particularly good")

"Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories" - http://www.amazon.com/Hateship-Friendship-Courtship-Loveship...

"The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership" - http://www.amazon.com/Score-Takes-Care-Itself-Philosophy/dp/...

"The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time" - http://www.amazon.com/Beak-Finch-Story-Evolution-Time/dp/067...

"The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison" - http://www.amazon.com/Constitutional-Convention-Narrative-Hi...

"The Art Of War for Lovers" - http://www.amazon.com/The-ART-WAR-FOR-LOVERS/dp/0671000632 (fixed! sorry about that...)

"Hold 'em Poker: For Advanced Players" - http://www.amazon.com/Hold-em-Poker-Advanced-Players/dp/1880...

"Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets" - http://www.amazon.com/Solution-Selling-Creating-Difficult-Ma...

"The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition" - http://www.amazon.com/Endurance-Shackletons-Legendary-Antarc...

"Winning" - http://www.amazon.com/Winning-Jack-Welch/dp/0060753943/

I wish he had answered in text. That would have made things easier :) However, I'm still very happy to have some new additions to my reading list!

josu
>"The Art Of War"

It actually is "The art of war for lovers" by Connell Cowan

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/317214.The_ART_OF_WAR_FO...

http://www.amazon.com/The-ART-WAR-FOR-LOVERS/dp/0671000632

striking
Thanks for correcting me. Those blurry frames can be tough.
josu
Yeah, I thought it was the Sun Tzu first too, which could as well be on his list. Thank you for compiling them.
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jkimmel
Molecular Biology of the Cell (Alberts) is free through NCBI! Many investigators jokingly refer to it as 'the bible'.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK21054/

striking
Ooh, much appreciated! Especially since a new hardcover is ~$150. Edited to note this.
ousta
do you see any reason he put this book in the list?
kqr2
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like you can read it cover to cover or download it.

  By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by 
  the search feature, but cannot be browsed.
jkimmel
This is true. However, you can get to any topic you want easily using the search feature. A Table of Contents is provided, making front-to-back reading by topic pretty trivial.

I've taken many university courses using this book and managed to read all the required material on NCBI without much effort.

hashfav
This is great! Do you mind if we add it to the HashFav Page? We will credit you.
carleverett
You might want to make josu's correction above ^
hashfav
Thanks, we just did.
striking
I don't mind at all. Glad to be of service.
misiti3780
im surprised to see Republic in here
abrbhat
The Art of War one looks more like "The Art of War In The Middle Ages" by C.W.C.Oman

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/89265.The_Art_of_War_in_...

http://www.amazon.com/Art-War-Middle-Ages/dp/1481954636/ref=...

sama
This is correct--art of war in the Middle Ages.
Some that I liked:

- Hackers : http://www.amazon.com/Hackers-Computer-Revolution-Anniversar...

- The Soul of a New Machine: http://www.amazon.com/The-Soul-A-New-Machine/dp/0316491977

- Show Stopper! : http://www.amazon.com/Show-Stopper-Breakneck-Generation-Micr...

- Dealers of Lightning: http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...

- Where Wizards Stay Up Late: http://www.amazon.com/Where-Wizards-Stay-Up-Late/dp/06848326...

LarryMade2
I'd add in that list the New Hacker's Dictionary edited by Eric S Raymond http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Hackers-Dictionary-Edition/dp/... - (aka the Jargon File http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/ ) It includes many computing terms invented over the years with their meanings and origins. You can learn a a bit about computer history by readin it.
ctrijueque
'Hackers' is avalaible as a free ebook too:

https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/729

grkvlt
"The Soul of a New Machine" is an excellent book. It is about the creation of the first 32 bit minicomputer hardware, complete with descriptions of ADVENTURE (aka Colossal Cave) and the "Maze of twisty passages all alike" and memorable lines such as "I am going to a commune in Vermont, and will deal with no time period shorter than a season" said after much work on gate delays and intstruction timing iassues...
cschmidt
I thought Hackers and Soul of a New Machine were both fantastic.
0xdeadbeefbabe
Dealers of Lightning because you might learn some new words, and did you know they had to fight to get the laser printer to the world?
deutronium
I'll second Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution, I found that a really fascinating book.
veddox
Absolutely. It does a great job of showing the spirit of the early hackers at MIT, even though it's not really a technical book.
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ritchiea
Hackers was a fun read but I don't think it's really an answer to the original question asking about computing history and expressing a concern that our field has a short memory. The OP's complaint was that most history stops at Turing and everything in Hackers is about MIT post-Turing.
duaneb
> The OP's complaint was that most history stops at Turing and everything in Hackers is about MIT post-Turing.

Before Turing, it was a handful of people obsessed with computing things efficiently. That history is difficult to extract from the hardware pre-Turing.

Mar 22, 2015 · zem on How PARC Saved Xerox
i highly recommend michael hiltzik's "dealers of lightning" [http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...]. it's one of the two best history of computing books i've read (tied with katie hafner's "where wizards stay up late")
Dealers of Lightening (http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...) is a great book about the contributions and founding of Xerox PARC.
"Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age" is pretty good:

http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...

The Unheavenly City by Edward Banfield: PDF: http://www.kevinrkosar.com/Edward-C-Banfield/Edward-C-Banfie...

Review: http://www.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/92789.html

His time preference classes explains so much of people regardless of race, religion, nationality, etc.

Rise of the Fourth Reich: http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Fourth-Reich-Societies-Threaten/d...

This is where I learned about Konrad Zuse creating a digital computer and programming language miles away from Bletchley Park in the early 40s.

Dealers of Lightning: http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...

It's about XEROX PARC. Unfortunately, they did not talk about how PARC made the OS and apps obsolete by using objects communicating over a network. I had to learn about that from an Alan Kay video. It did show how PARC contributed to the Internet by creating an internet before ARPANET.

Last and best of all: http://vpri.org/html/writings.php

The latest report, "Steps Toward Expressive Programming Systems", describes a computer system without an OS. They seem to be refining what PARC did back in the late 1970s.

If anyone wants to learn more, there's a fantastic book about Xerox PARC called "Dealers of Lightning" by Michael Hiltzik. http://www.amazon.com/Dealers-Lightning-Xerox-PARC-Computer/...
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