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The Soul of a New Machine

Innovation, intrigue, and invention: uncover computer culture's roots

By Tracy Kidder
13-minute read
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

The Soul of a New Machine (1981) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about one team at the computer company Data General who was determined to put its company back on the map by producing a new superminicomputer. With very few resources and under immense pressure, the team pulls together to produce a completely new kind of computer.

  • Anyone interested in the history of the computer industry
  • Anyone interested in the the birth of the tech start-up working culture
  • Anyone interested in effective (but mean) management techniques

Tracy Kidder is a literary journalist who has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine. He attended Harvard University, where he switched his major from political science to English.

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The Soul of a New Machine

By Tracy Kidder
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
Synopsis

The Soul of a New Machine (1981) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about one team at the computer company Data General who was determined to put its company back on the map by producing a new superminicomputer. With very few resources and under immense pressure, the team pulls together to produce a completely new kind of computer.

Key idea 1 of 8

Data General was a fast-growing, no-frills computer company under pressure to design a new kind of minicomputer.

In the late 1970s, a few so-called “minicomputer” companies were in fierce competition with one another. (Back then, “minicomputer” meant a device costing under $25,000, that could just aboutfit into an elevator.) The biggest player was a company called DEC, with a circa 85% share of the market.

One company in particular, based in Westborough, Massachusetts, was notorious for its brutally competitive and stingy ways. That company was Data General. It had been founded about ten years earlier by the current president Ed De Castro, who had jumped ship from competitor DEC.

From the outset, Data General was focused strictly on profits, with little ostentation: even their headquarters was a bleak, concrete fort.

The company’s practices were infamous in the industry; even competitors warned customers about these dangerous newcomers, which of course only generated more buzz for the company. There was even a rumor that Data General had torched a competitor’s factory.

But Data General did indeed make money, generating 20% profits, year after year, until its revenue eventually grew to a whopping $508 million and the company found itself in 500th place on the Fortune 500.

It was around this time that competitors such as DEC were coming out with a new kind of computer – the “supermini” –  and everyone wanted  one. DEC’s new VAX 11/780 machine was considered a breakthrough in this burgeoning industry, and Data General – learning that the market was set to be worth several billion dollars in just a few years – decided it needed to build an “answer” to the VAX.

To this end, Tom West, an engineering Vice President at Data General, bought and took apart the VAX machine. After examining it closely, he decided Data General could do better.

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