Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Steven Levy

Published by






Reviewed by

Danny Williams MBCS CITP


9 out of 10

HackersHackers describes the birth of hacker culture along with the people, events and computers that made it possible. It is written for anyone who has an interest in the more informal aspects of computer history.

The media often portrays a hacker as someone who creates computer viruses and illegally gains access to restricted computer systems. But back in the 1950s hacking was quite different. Some members of the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) decided to branch out.

The university had an IBM 704 computer, but access was severely restricted, which meant that the TMRC members who were used to tinkering with the railroad could not have the same degrees of freedom with the computer. This was incredibly frustrating for these students whose driving desire was to make things better.

Then one day, MIT took delivery of a TX-0 computer. Jack Dennis, who as an undergraduate was a member of TMRC, was one of the people who worked on the TX-0. He invited some of the TMRC members to see this new computer, and the rest is history.

Levy guides you on a journey starting with students' first hardware dalliances in universities. You meet many of the people who, without intending to do so, defined a new culture. Levy defines the hacker ethic, which includes principles such as free access to computers and information.

The second epoch of hacking covers the advent of home computing. Facilitated by the introduction of relatively inexpensive microprocessors, people started to build their own computers, many using the MITS Altair 8800 kit. Here we meet familiar names including Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as well as others who were equally influential albeit not so famous.

Once companies such as Apple and Atari started mass-producing computers, the fascination with making the hardware work moved on to software. And what better way to exploit all the available technologies than through computer games?

We learn about companies and personalities who became very rich by creating games such as Frogger. These hackers, like those that preceded them, were mostly not driven by money; instead, the quality of the game was their driving imperative. They just happened to get rich at the same time!

Levy has revisited his book twice since its original publication. In its 25th year it is still relevant today. One can see many parallels between the original hacker ethic and the guiding principles of Open Source Software.

At almost 500 pages this is a long book - but there are so many stories to tell. I recommend you read Hackers to learn about the people who helped to popularise computers for us all today.

Further Information: O'Reilly

August 2010