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This book is great. What a fantastic idea to spend the whole focus of a book on the invention of Eniac. I loved every delicious minute of the invention process, court battles, politics, and personal battles surrounding the development of Eniac.
When I was very little, my father took me to UPenn to see Eniac. He worked there as a programmer in the late 1970s and took me into his office and explained what email was, at the time a foreign concept. He helped me type a message to one of his coworkers and I hit send! It took a lot of explaining on his part for me to understand that I sent a real letter to a real person, just like one the postal worker would deliver, and that I had done it in a fraction of a second. I was really young but understood it enough to be amazed. Email was a brand new phenomenon and could only be sent inside the building itself, but what a rush! I was taken in by the size of Eniac and by my father's words, spouting off the many incredible things it could do when no one else had anything like it-- and how it led to the progress they were making in computing at that point in the 70s. When I later studied cognitive science at UPenn, I went back to see it and remembered how amazed I was as a little girl. On the second time around I was even more captivated.
Reading about the politics at Penn was fascinating. I love the struggles that played out between Penn and its workers, the Army and the Navy, and IBM and other companies. It's crazy how often the little guy gets screwed. Money often determines the outcome. In addition to that, being an extrovert really helps... a lot. Programmers and scientists are often not very good at speaking up and asserting dominance. Poor Mauchly. I do not want to provide any spoilers, but the portrayal of his life, until his death, was my favorite part of the book.
So if I loved it so much, why 3 stars? The history enthusiast in me wanted to give it 5 stars. The human being in me who cares about basic rights and inequality wanted to give it one star. He allotted one sentence to Ada Lovelace, and it was unbelievably dismissive. When writing about the female computers, he seemed to think himself progressive for stating they were thought of as clerks but were in reality actual programmers. Gee thanks. When authors tell histories that leave out key females, they help to bury their worth even deeper. I am really tired of that. I cannot in good conscience give more than 3 stars to any author who does that, no matter how great the rest of the book was, and the rest of the book was truly great.
A main goal for this book, if not the main goal, was to right the wrongs that had been committed by excluding the significant contributions of the very people who made some of the most significant contributions. It is therefore all the more surprising that he would treat Ada Lovelace's contributions so dismissively. He did the very thing he argued against in this book