Book: The Dream Machine

I’m in the final chapters of The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop. This book is wild. It’s a comprehensive history of the early days of computing, anchored around the career of J.C.R Licklider. It’s filled with digressions on individuals careers and academic lineages, how people move from project to project and how the ideas they push developed.

It’s fascinating to see ideas that I know by individual names, like “Von Neumann Architecture” or “Alan Kay’s Dynabook” in their full context, with all the other people who influenced and inspired them.


This book is a really interesting if taken as a guide for how to nurture a intellecutual revolution. The ideas that are in the mainstream of computing today (like the basic idea of personal computing) may seem inevitable, but individuals fought for them to become to. Specifically Lick (as he’s called throughout the book) worked to cultivate a community of people to further what he saw as the future of computing.


  • Do you know any other books on this period (A People’s History of Computing in
    the United States comes to mind.)
  • Would such a “revolution” be possible today? Does it depend on the people working on it being relatively few and concentrated?
  • For this community, it’s interesting how much of this was nurtured by the academic institutions and the government. What are elements of those institutions we could emulate to achieve similar things?
  • reminds me of this quote from Metcalfe on how engineering standards require a lot of selling and politicking; it takes more than being a good idea to get to ubiquity

I’ll try and answer you questions later as I’m on my phone rn!

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Yeah, I’m definitely guilty of the alternat mindset, where inventing is the hard part (i.e build it and they will come).

I wonder how the divide (building vs selling) factors into learning about building technology. Are they actually distinct disciplines or should it be a part of one’s engineering education to understand how technology is sold and spreads? One could argue that the market is an environment that has constraints that technology should be engineered for. On the other hand seperating the disciplines allows them to progress and create ideas that, though they may not immediately do so, eventually intersect.

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I enjoyed this one, nice history of Bell Labs:

From its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s, Bell Labs officially, the research and development wing of AT&T was the biggest, and arguably the best, laboratory for new ideas in the world. From the transistor to the laser, it’s hard to find an aspect of modern life that hasn’t been touched by Bell Labs.

Why did so many transformative ideas come from Bell Labs? In “The Idea Factory,” Jon Gertner traces the origins of some of the twentieth century s most important inventions and delivers a riveting and heretofore untold chapter of American history…

Both turn up on this list from Patrick Collision of resources about research labs (which makes sense as I think he basically drove the charge for getting the Dream Machine back intro print?).

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I finally finished this book and can speak about it freely. What a fantastic history. This must be the next great American musical (You hear that, Lin-Manuel? Stop gallivanting around with empty calories and follow up Hamilton, son!)

My main takeaway was that the revolution was brought to us by an academic and a change agent who moved people and money just so to make. things. happen. This is the inspiration I needed in my life. I may not be a genius personally, but I can find and enable them, and thus I shall move mountains.

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One of the things I loved and really made an impact on my thoughts was the non-linear nature of the spread of ideas. The book mentions things that popped up early on and were very interesting to folks, but ultimately didn’t amount to large scale change, and then later they come up again and become successful. The same thing is mirrored in how individuals turn up in the book. I kept having to flip back through to figure out where a name was actually mentioned for the first time, and put two and two together.

A book similar to The Dream Machine:

It is a widespread history, going from Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and George Boole to people like Licklider, Douglas Engelbart, and Alan Kay. Having that wide range gives much needed perspective to the computing revolution. I think the author calls it retrospective futurism, which I think is a great phrase for it.


Oooh this seems awesome. I don’t know if you’ve seen this essay: on the same subject, it’s awesome.

Generally the “tools for thought” lens is a really useful way to view the trajectory of technology for me and especially the most transformative ones.

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Ah I haven’t read that yet! Seems like an extension of Andy’s thinking in Why Books Don’t Work so I will make sure to give it a look. Thanks for the recommendation @jaredpereira!

And I wholeheartedly agree. Even “Tools for thought” is a tool for thought if you think about it! Makes me wonder how even that concept advanced over time.


Not sure if it’s considered bad form to revive an old topic but just found this thread and love the recommendations. I would also add:


As books I’ve read that feel similar in vain and I highly recommend! If you were to pick one of them, Dealer’s of Lightning is a wonderful book about Xerox PARC that I think anyone who enjoyed The Dream Machine would find interesting.

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Nice, sure revive away, always fun to get some new book recs!

Another one I recently read and enjoyed, gets into the organizational as well as technical complexity of large-scale infrastructure projects:

Ooh and on the organizational complexity front and related to The Dream Machine, I reallly enjoyed:

Especially the section digging into current DARPA-likes!