Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

by Steven Levy


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This 25th anniversary edition of Steven Levy's classic book traces the exploits of the computer revolution's original hackers — those brilliant and eccentric nerds from the late 1950s through the early '80s who took risks, bent the rules, and pushed the world in a radical new direction. With updated material from noteworthy hackers such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Stallman, and Steve Wozniak, Hackers is a fascinating story that begins in early computer research labs and leads to the first home computers.

Levy profiles the imaginative brainiacs who found clever and unorthodox solutions to computer engineering problems. They had a shared sense of values, known as "the hacker ethic," that still thrives today. Hackers captures a seminal period in recent history when underground activities blazed a trail for today's digital world, from MIT students finagling access to clunky computer-card machines to the DIY culture that spawned the Altair and the Apple II.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781449388393
Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/10/2010
Pages: 499
Sales rank: 375,216
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Levy is a senior writer for Wired. Previously, he was chief technology writer and a senior editor for Newsweek. Levy has written six books and had articles published in Harper's, Macworld, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Premiere, and Rolling Stone. Steven has won several awards during his 30+ years of writing about technology, including Hackers , which PC Magazine named the best Sci-Tech book written in the last twenty years and, Crypto , which won the grand eBook prize at the 2001 Frankfurt Book festival.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Tech Model Railroad Club

Just why Peter Samson was wandering around in Building 26 in the middle of the night is a matter that he would find difficult to explain. Some things are not spoken. If you were like the people whom Peter Samson was coming to know and befriend in this, his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the winter of 1958-59, no explanation would be required.

Wandering around the labyrinth of laboratories and storerooms, searching for the secrets of telephone switching in machine rooms, tracing paths of wires or relays in subterranean steam tunnels . . . for some, it was common behavior, and there was no need to justify the impulse, when confronted with a closed door with an unbearably intriguing noise behind it, to open the door uninvited. And then, if there was no one to physically bar access to whatever was making that intriguing noise, to touch the machine, start flicking switches and noting responses, and eventually to loosen a screw, unhook a template, jiggle some diodes and tweak a few connections. Peter Samson and his friends had grown up with a specific relationship to the world, wherein things had meaning only if you found out how they worked. And how would you go about that if not by getting your hands on them?

It was in the basement of Building 26 that Samson and his friends discovered the EAM room. Building 26 was a long glassand-steel structure, one of MIT's newer buildings, contrasting with the venerable pillared structures that fronted the Institute on Massachusetts Avenue. In the basement of this building void of personality, the EAM room. Electronic Accounting Machinery. A room that housed machineswhich ran like computers.

Not many people in 1959 had even seen a computer, let alone touched one. Samson, a wiry, curly-haired redhead with a way of extending his vowels so that it would seem he was racing through lists of possible meanings of statements in mid-word, had viewed computers on his visits to MIT from his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, less than thirty miles from campus. This made him a "Cambridge urchin," one of dozens of science-crazy high schoolers in the region who were drawn, as if by gravitational pull, to the Cambridge campus. He had even tried to rig up his own computer with discarded parts of old pinball machines: they were the best source of logic elements he could. find.

Logic elements: the term seems to encapsulate what drew Peter Samson, son of a mill machinery repairman, to electronics. The subject made sense. When you grow up with an insatiable curiosity as to how things work, the delight you find upon discovering something as elegant as circuit logic, where all connections have to complete their loops, is profoundly thrilling. Peter Samson, who early on appreciated the mathematical simplicity of these things, could recall seeing a television show on Boston's public TV channel, WGBH, which gave a rudimentary introduction to programming a computer in its own language. It fired his imagination: to Peter Samson, a computer was surely like Aladdin's lamp-rub it, and it would do your bidding. So he tried to learn more about the field, built machines of his own, entered science project competitions and contests, and went to the place that people of his ilk aspired to: MIT. The repository of the very brightest of those weird high school kids with owl-like glasses and underdeveloped pectorals who dazzled math teachers and flunked PE, who dreamed not of scoring on prom night, but of getting to the finals of the General Electric Science Fair competition. MIT, where he would wander the hallways at two o'clock in the morning, looking for something interesting, and where he would indeed discover something that would help draw him deeply into a new form of creative process, and a new life-style, and would put him into the forefront of a society envisioned only by a few science-fiction writers of mild disrepute. He would discover a computer that he could play with.

The EAM room which Samson had chanced on was loaded with large keypunch machines the size of squat file cabinets. No one was protecting them: the room was staffed only by day, when a select group who had attained official clearance were privileged enough to submit long manila cards to operators who would then use these machines to punch holes in them according to what data the privileged ones wanted entered on the cards. A hole in the card would represent some instruction to the computer, telling it to put a piece of data somewhere, or perform a function on a piece of data, or move a piece of data from one place to another. An entire stack of these cards made one computer program, a program being a series of instructions which yield some expected result, just as the instructions in a recipe, when precisely followed, lead to a cake. Those cards would be taken to yet another operator upstairs who would feed the cards into a "reader" that would note where the holes were and dispatch this information to the IBM 704 computer on the first floor of Building 26. The Hulking Giant.

The IBM 704 cost several million dollars, took up an entire room, needed constant attention from a cadre of professional machine operators, and required special air-conditioning so that the glowing vacuum tubes inside it would not heat up to data-destroying temperatures. When the air-conditioning broke down-a fairly common occurrence-a loud gong would sound, and three engineers would spring from a nearby office to frantically take covers off the machine so its innards wouldn't melt. All these people in charge of punching cards, feeding them into readers, and pressing buttons and switches on the machine were what was commonly called a Priesthood, and those privileged enough to submit data to those most holy priests were the official acolytes. It was an almost ritualistic exchange.

Acolyte: Oh machine, would you accept my offer of information so you may run my program and perhaps give me a computation?

Priest (on behalf of the machine): We will try. We promise nothing. As a general rule, even these most privileged of acolytes were not allowed direct access to the machine itself, and they would not be able to see for hours, sometimes for days, the results of the machine's ingestion of their "batch" of cards.

This was something Samson knew, and of course it frustrated the hell out of Samson, who wanted to get at the damn machine. For this was what life was all about...

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Who’s Who: The Wizards and Their Machines
  • True Hackers: Cambridge: The Fifties and Sixties
  • Hardware Hackers: Northern California: The Seventies
  • Game Hackers: The Sierras: The Eighties
  • The Last of the True Hackers: Cambridge: 1983
    • The Last of the True Hackers
    • Afterword: Ten Years After
    • Afterword: 2010
    • Notes
    • Acknowledgments

  • About the Author
  • Colophon

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Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although the book covers the early days of the computer revolution and its growth over the decades, the most nostalgic part for me was the early 1980s segment. For those who remember, it was the dawn of the home computer age, and there were so many platforms to choose from (today it's just PC and Mac). There were a lot of movers and shakers, pioneers with a vision. And back then, Bill Gates was just some guy that made a Disk Operating System and a version of the BASIC programming language. As the title demonstrates, 'hackers' are referred to as the good guys. There was actually once upon a time when the word had positive meanings. Today most people associate the word 'hacker' with people bent with destructive purporses with their computers. A very good read for those interested in the history of the computer age and the people that made a difference. They paved way for the computers we all are using today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've read Steven Levy's articles in Macworld magazine. It's this book, Hackers, that earned him my utmost respect as an author. Levy chronicles the history of hacking from the ancient 1960's at MIT up through the early 1980's. While the material is apparently non-fiction, the book flows very well, and is well suited to reading chapters every now and then, as every few chapters covers a different breed of hacker.
johnnyryan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent - Levy writes in an easy manner and clearly invested allot of time understanding the hacker scene and considering its implications.
co_coyote on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the 25th Anniversary Edition of this venerable book, and well worth reading again! We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the IBM Personal PC and this book is all about the people whose work led up to that amazing piece of machinery. It's good, sometimes, to go back to your roots.
timspalding on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this as a kid and it really inspired me. I reread it recently. It stands up.
TheAmpersand on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An lively and detailed account of the early years of the computer revolution told from the perspective of the ambitious, sleep-deprived nerds who helped make it happen. Levy seems to have conducted extensive interviews with many of his story's leading protagonists, which allows him to capture their quirkiest aspects and probe their often complicated personal lives. He's also good about making the world of computing seem accessible to lay readers who do not have any previous knowledge of computer science. "Hackers" is reminiscent of a rock documentary in which tech geeks have replaced lead guitarists. Businesses are started in garages, unbelievably talented amateur engineers "hack," or improvise and code, into the wee hours of the morning, creativity explodes, and fortunes get made. Some of these poindexters even manage to get laid. Levy makes the technical feats that early computer fans achieved seem impressive and their boundless enthusiasm infectious, and it's amazing to realize that the computing power of yesterday's "supercomputers" is now available in today's pocket-size devices. Reading stories of how the home computer users of the late seventies tore their fingers to shreds on the Altair's switches made me more grateful than ever for my idiot-proof Mac Mini.Sadly, the author's tone also contributes to the novel's biggest failing. Levy has well-defined ideas about how computer technology should be advanced. He's all for collaboration and "open source" sharing and dislikes bureaucracy and standardization. When many of the companies he chronicles go big and adapt standard corporate structures, his regret, and even disapproval, is palpable. Still, it's hard to imagine that the computer revolution could have grown beyond a small circle of enthusiasts without a large injection of capital and the introduction of standard, user-friendly machines aimed at the non-egghead. While Levy sometimes pauses to acknowledge this, his book sometimes threatens to turn into more of a screed than a history. At four hundred and fifty pages, "Hackers" could also be said to run a bit long, but it provides up-close reportage on an exciting and transformative time that readers are unlikely to find elsewhere.
OMouse on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book chronicles the history of hackers, computer programmers, computer hardware engineers, and hobbyists. It also shows the rise of these strange types as the hardware became smaller and more accessible to the general public.The book is very well written and focuses on the stories of key persons. It is easy to relate to them and the book reveals the hidden drama, goals and ideals of computer programmers/hackers. The book gives more depth to the computer industry.Especially interesting were the later sections where the computer game industry was discussed. That's when computers really became popular and it was interesting to see how people tried to commericialize them, such as by turning programmers into factory line workers, or by having a tv show about video game playing, or movie/game tie-ins.Levy is a fantastic writer and really brings out the human element. I've read the book 3 times and I think I'll always be able to re-read it without feeling bored.
EmreSevinc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The only thing that is missing in this wonderful book is the UNIX era, which constitutes a story by itself. I was really disappointed to see that UNIX is mentioned in only one or two pages (and nothing is mentioned about UNIX and C hackers). Other than that, I think it paints a very vivid and humane picture of a very special period of the history of computing. I would also recommend it to people who are not technical so that they can understand the mindset and psychology of hackers better. The distinction between the styles of serious business computing and passionate, obsessive, creative and innovative hacking pushing the boundaries is also made very clear in the book. That distinction still exists today, even though the flagship of modern hacking GNU/Linux is becoming more and more of a business commodity rather than a risky playground for trying out really groundbreaking ideas. I also recommend the book to programmers, hackers and technical managers so that they know more about the past of their field. The roads taken and the roads not takes.I must admit that I learned much more about the history of Homebrew Computer Club and game hacking from this book, wish it contained more stories about Commodore, ZX Spectrum and Amiga. So grab some Chinese food, set up your hacking environment, put this book on your desk and give it a go! :)
jonbeckett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully written and engaging history of the important people, events and developments that have shaped the information technology landscape we now take for granted.
addict on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Steven Levy's classic book explains why the misuse of the word "hackers" to describe computer criminals does a terrible disservice to many important shapers of the digital revolution. Levy follows members of an MIT model railroad club--a group of brilliant budding electrical engineers and computer innovators--from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s. These eccentric characters used the term "hack" to describe a clever way of improving the electronic system that ran their massive railroad. And as they started designing clever ways to improve computer systems, "hack" moved over with them. These maverick characters were often fanatics who did not always restrict themselves to the letter of the law and who devoted themselves to what became known as "The Hacker Ethic." The book traces the history of hackers, from finagling access to clunky computer-card-punching machines to uncovering the inner secrets of what would become the Internet. This story of brilliant, eccentric, flawed, and often funny people devoted to their dream of a better world will appeal to a wide audience.
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Eyewitmess More than 1 year ago
Since I knew, from childhood, one of the major players in this book, I feel qualified to comment on the nature of Mr. Levy's accuracy and scholarship, as well as his enthusiastic and readable writing style. I would say that he got the essence and attitude of my friend as accurately as one could hope for. After reading over 50 pages concerning this fellow, Mr. Levy left me with only one comment...which was "SPOT-ON!"
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great read for understanding the history of hacking and who where the role players.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great read on the history of computing, and an interesting study on what defined the earliest hackers, and the hacker spirit. I recommend this book highly to those who love computers and want to learn more about what defined the computer they are currently using.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a great read, it starts from the early days of huge mainframes to the early years of PCs, it chronicles the lifes and accomplishments of real hackers not those wanna-bes that just want to destroy things.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unable to open sample on my tablet. Delete!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Unlike what any AOL-lamer might think this book is not about security exploitation or anything of the like. Hacking is a philosophy, and this book describes it ever so eloquently. This is one of the best computer history books ever written for programmers and curious users alike. This takes you through the world where computers were only for the highly privileged all the way to the beginnings of mainstream home computing. You get to learn about the real pioneers of computing, from those that began the AI revolution to the writer of the ever so popular EMACS. A smooth read, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in computers in general.
Guest More than 1 year ago
You wouldn't believe the detail in this book. It's basically a step by step description of the biggest computer accomplishments when computers had just came out. It is very percise, down to the model numbers, and characteristics. This is a very good book if you're a techie. Otherwise, go read a dummies book, dummy.