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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

The Immortal Soul of an Old Machine

The Soul of a New Machine, stylized cover image

The best book ever written about IT work or the computer industry will be 40 years old in August. Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine describes the work of Data General engineers to prototype a minicomputer, codenamed "Eagle," intended to halt the advance of the Digital Equipment Corporation's hugely successful VAX range. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for non-fiction, perhaps the two highest honors available for book-length journalism. Year after year, the book continues to sell and win new fans. Developers born since it was published often credit it with shaping their career choices or helping them appreciate the universal aspects of their own experiences.

Soul's appeal has endured, even though what started out as a dispatch from a fast-growing firm building a piece of the future now reads as a time capsule from a lost world. Back in 1991 I read the book for an undergraduate class, typing my paper on a PC that was already more capable than Eagle yet cost 100 times less. So why are so many people still excited to relive the creation of a pitifully obsolete computer, designed by a team of obscure engineers for a long-forgotten company that never mattered very much anyway? Having spent almost 30 years now trying to take the book apart and figure out how it works, I think I have some answers. Ten of them, in fact.


Duncan Walker

I was working at Digital Equipment when the book came out, and we all bought and read it. Of course everyone at Digital looked down their noses at DG. We had a poster on the wall showing an eagle with no feathers, because the Eagle was released running Eclipse software, a topic not discussed in the book. My reaction was that DG made a big deal about the mode bit, when it is nearly irrelevant, since the machine will be running either a large chunk of old code (and so can use compatibility mode) or a chunk of new code. And designing the Eagle as an Eclipse extension required many compromises. I was also struck by the chaos of the project, compared to the more orderly development I experienced at DEC. The Alpha architecture did not fail due to lack of backward compatibility. More than a dozen versions were shipped. It died with the purchase of DEC by Compaq.

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