Book Review: Core Memory
I have a strange affinity for wall-sized computers in old movies. Banks of blinking lights and spinning reels of magnetic tape made for nice background scenery, but they’re nothing compared to the real stories behind those early, rare and expensive computers. These pioneering machines are explored in an unexpectedly sumptuous way via Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers.
This kind of book is a retro-computer geek’s dream come true, but for a layman like myself John Alderman’s text fills in the details and history on each machine wonderfully well. Mark Richards’ photography gets in deep and close, bringing out intriguing abstract patterns in the masses of transistors, buttons and chips (plus he gets a lot of mileage on how the internal wiring on many old machines resemble human veins). The photos also focus on the pieces’ humble, human aspects — be it the handwritten fire and police phone numbers on 1961′s SAGE computer or the funky plywood box housing Steve Wozniak’s original Apple from 1976. The end result is that these early computers are not as imposing as previously thought, but much more impressive in terms of what they did at the time.
This book also serves as a neat browse if only to check out how each computer’s design reflects the time it was made in. For instance, the Nippon NEAC 2203 from 1960 (pictured in the spread below) has the same clean and angular “Populuxe” look shared by cars from the same era. By the time we get to Digital’s DEC PDP-8 (pictured on the cover) of a few years later, muted tones have given way to a groovy palette of oranges, yellows and browns. I never thought I’d say this about an old computer, but trés chic.
The computers covered in this book range from interesting, short-lived failures (Honeywell’s Jetsons-esque Kitchen Computer) to popular classics (the Commodore 64). The only complaint I’d have is that many of the profiled machines don’t have a single, straightforward exterior view — just details. But that’s a small blemish on an otherwise fine book.