Book Review: Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers
Remember your high school computer theory class? References to the “ancient” (in computer innovation time) machines which utilized vacuum tubes, drum memories, ferrite rings? Remember ENIAC, UNIVAC, EDVAC etc? If these terms bring back nostalgic memories of your high school computer course and the thoughts imagining what these machines looked like, then Core Memory is the book to refer.
Core Memory, named after the Ferrite Rings or Magnetic Core Memory, is a photographic journey by Mark Richards accompanied John Alderman’s informational text. The coffee table sized book travels through the major developments in computer history via a series of high definition, glossy photographs. The photographs cover both the computer systems themselves and some of the more innovative (for that time) technologies used in those computers.
Most of today’s generation know computers as the beige boxed PCs or the candy colored iMacs. But computers were not always the basic 4 piece combination of monitor, cabinet, keyboard and mouse. The computers of the beginning of mankind’s trysts with electronic calculation and computation were as varied as they got. Room full of equipment, weighing tons apiece, most of the early computers cost millions of dollars to construct and provided computational power to perform a few hundred or thousand calculations per second.
One of the first was the Alpha Z3, constructed by Germany prior to World War 2. The computer was unfortunately destroyed during the Allied bombing of Berlin. Around the same time, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was being constructed to compute the trajectory for missiles and other airborne weaponry. Though it was not completed in time to be used in the war, ENIAC, along with its successors EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) and UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer) started the revolution of electronic computing machines. Core Memory traces the humble beginnings of our tryst with computers and leads up to the modern, ultra powerful computers we use today, the most basic of which are more capable than the costliest systems of that time.
The high quality photographs of this book show the history of computers in a different light and the text provided by John Alderman enhances the value of the book. The text usually described the manufacturer, the purpose, cost and basic architecture of each of the computers to provide context to the computers against the others. That said, none of the images have an informational blurb. So when an ultra close-up of a component is shown, the reader only can guess what it might be. This sometimes is quite frustrating and would have greatly enhanced the value of the photographs since the readers would be able to connect to the images in the book to a more intimate level.
The information contained within the book is quite basic and not a comprehensive history of computer systems. In fact it does not cover all the systems that have changed computing landscape over the course of history but only those which are on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Also, while the images are quite detailed, there is no sense of scale. Shots of computer systems are placed along with full page images of Vacuum Tubes. Also there is no consistency in the types of shots. While showing detailed component level images are good, at least one shot of the full system should have been included for each of the computers to give a better idea to the readers. Obviously, the images have not been chosen to give a overall view of the system but more for their their artistic value.
Don’t get me wrong. This book is good. Very good and evokes a strong sense of nostalgia. The images are of a very high quality and give great detail. But it is not very comprehensive. So approach this as an photography and art book, not as a descriptive manual or a tome of history. But for the sheer pleasure of its contents, I highly recommend this book, both for your personal library and as a gift to your “geekier” friends.