The History of the Future: a Reading List

800px-Dg-pcb

Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, journalist-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He also writes and produces radio about the lives of stuff and the stuff of life.

***

Journalism has been called the first draft of history. Here are 5 technology stories that belong in the second draft. Like a lot of technology journalism, they’re each focused on an emerging future, which at times makes them a bit breathless with excitement. But unlike most technology journalism, these stories have only gotten better with age. They’re sprinkled with uncanny predictions and unexpected depth about the devices we’ve come to take for granted.

As We May Think (Vannevar Bush, The Atlantic, 1945)

Two months before the end of World War II, and two decades before the first PCs, the wartime head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) rhapsodized about impending technological possibilities. Of these five writers, if Bush were around today, he’d probably be the most excited and least surprised at our digital world.

 

Secrets of the Little Blue Box (Ron Rosenbaum, Esquire, 1971)

Once Upon a Time in the Western Electric: the story of an era when you could hijack a long-distance line by whistling into the phone. This is the article that turned Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak into business partners. Its heading in Esquire described it this way: “It may even make you feel sorry for the phone company.”

 

Soul of a New Machine (Tracy Kidder, serialized in The Atlantic, 1981)

Data General built a microcomputer and Tracy Kidder built this book. A classic and intricate narrative of high-stakes computer engineering, not to mention the winner of both a Pulitzer and the 1982 National Book Award.

 

The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce (Tom Wolfe, Esquire, 1983)

The king of offbeat cultural criticism tries his hand at decoding the computer chip. Esquire said this was the last magazine story Wolfe ever wrote. It takes you from small-town Iowa to boom-town Silicon Valley, in pursuit of the humble transistor and the elaborate technologies that followed.

 

Mother Earth, Mother Board (Neal Stephenson, Wired, 1996)

An exuberant story of the Internet, embodied. Stephenson made the terms “Web” and “Net” literal by chasing fiber-optic cable and sailing with cable layers. A long read about a very, very long wire.
Get the Longreads Weekly Email

Sign up to receive the Top 5 Longreads of the week, delivered every Friday.