The new alchemists. (book reviews) Edward Joyce.
The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley And The Microelectronics Revolution, by Dirk Hanson. Little, Brown And Company, Boston. 364 pages. $15.95. 1982.
If you only read one book about computers this year, be sure The New Alchemists is it. In a highly readable, non-technical style, Dirk Hanson chronicles the history of electronics from the first attempts to harmess electricity in the 1800's to the age of computers skyrocketing into outer space.
From the onset, Hanson enchants the reader with anecdotes about the electrical pioneers. Thomas Edison "zapped dogs with a thousand volts of alternating current' to demonstrate the hazards of AC which a rival and competitor proposed. Nikola Tesla, the renowned electrical investigator, claimed "that he could vibrate the entire planet.' Alan Turing, one of the foremost architects of the modern computer, "died at the age of 42 from suicide by poison' after being threatened with public exposure of his homosexuality. These not-to-be-found-in-the-encyclopedia revelations add a humane richness to the bigger than life images accorded these famed scientists.
After three chapters of historical roots, the saga accelerates, paced by its high-tech subject matter. Vacuum tubes, transistors, and Atari culminate in the transformation of the San Jose Valley from fruit orchards to the fertile hub of computer technology. "The Valley has gained a well-deserved reputation as the Florence of the information age . . . the densest concentration of brainpower in the world . . . digital circuit and computer manufacturers, Nobel Prize winners, maverick scientists, university researchers, electronic warfare specialists, and high-octane investors.'
Despite its burgeoning subject matter, electronics (where fifty percent of what electrical engineers learn is outmoded within three years of graduation), Alchemists is remarkably inclusive. Covering the current political scene, Hanson discusses the U.S. Justice Department dismissals of the AT&T and IBM antitrust suits, which occurred as recently as January 1982. On the scientific horizons, he foresees Dick Tracy two-way wristradio communications via satellites and gram-sized artificial brains being launched into space for exploration of the cosmos. In Toward the Silicon Future, the concluding chapter, the author toys with artificial intelligence in machines that walk and talk.
City planners and business leaders who hope to establish high-technology electronics centers in their municipalities would do well to read this book. "The microelectronics industry has been a textbook example of a capitalist production engine tuned and running to near-perfection,' writes Hanson. The 3000 electronic firms in Silicon Valley foster the nation's most spectacular growth and a comfortable lifestyle for residents of this affluent area, which is also known as "Porscheland.'
The author outlines a simple recipe for success: mix excellent engineering schools with a good pool of labor and plenty of energy. Sprinkle liberally with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Let simmer in a pleasant climate. Serve--a billion dollar industry.
The New Alchemists is a fascinating exploration of the intense human drama taking place inside the microelectronics revolution. Within the next century, I forecast that technology will mandate a revised edition of Alchemists. In this version, the microelectronics revolution will have progressed beyond the video games of the 1980's to a new species. A silicon species, whose machine intelligence vastly surpasses the cellular, human mind!
Review Grade: A