The Soul of a New Machine

This is a set of obervation/discussion questions about Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine and links for further information. The book was assigned reading for a number of semesters in CPSC 3300, Introduction to Computer Organization, at Clemson University. (Note: The page numbers below refer to the 1981 hardback first edition.)

Project organization

Photo of Eagle team, 1980 (from Dec. 2000 Wired magazine)
Eagle team members
Front row, kneeling, from left: Jonathan Blau, Rosemarie Seale, Mike Hobbs, Dave Peck, Betty Shanahan, Paul Reilly.
Middle row, from left: Steve Wallach, Ken Holberger, Dave Zeek, Dave Epstein, Mike Ziegler, Jim Guyer, Dave Keating, Neal Firth, Chuck Holland.
Back row, standing, from left: Carl Alsing, Ed Rasala, Steve Staudaher, Jim Veres, Len Winmill, Bob Beauchamp, Dick Coyle.

Photo of software team (XYZZY displayed on the screens is from the Adventure game)

Background on Kidder's access to DG

Kidder and West, 1982, at The Computer Museum
West and Kidder
(Kidder is on the left)

excerpt from Evan Ratliff, "O, Engineers!" Wired, Dec. 2000.

At the time a freelance writer struggling to pay the bills, Kidder had been inspired to write about technology after the protests surrounding the opening of the Seabrook nuclear reactor in 1976. Over a beer, his editor at The Atlantic, Richard Todd, suggested he look into computers. Todd knew someone in the business: his old college roommate, Tom West.

excerpts from Diana ben-Aaron, "Kidder bares Soul," The Tech (MIT paper), September 27, 1983.

Kidder said he first became interested in computers when his editor at The Atlantic suggested he "look into computers" and suggested he approach Tom West, a software engineer at Data General Corporation. "I knew I didn't want to write a huge book about the computer industry," Kidder said. "I wanted to tell a narrative, one small part. I think the idea of a book - 'I want to write about computers' - is not as important as what you do with it." Kidder said he gathered the material for his book "mostly by just hanging around offices and labs in the evenings. It was made clear to me that if I got in the way, I'd be out, so I tried not to get in the way," he explained. "Clearly, some people [at Data General] felt it was to their advantage" that he write about their work, Kidder said. While no one at the corporation requested regular progress reports on the book, the firm's vice president at one time requested control of the manuscript, according to Kidder. "I really don't know what my lawyers said to their lawyers, but I would not trade ultimate control over what I wrote for access to the story. ... I agreed only not to reveal trade secrets," he said. ... Kidder spent two years researching the book and nine months writing it, he said. He lived on an advance from The Atlantic's publishing company, Atlantic-Little Brown, while researching and writing.

Tracy Kidder web site

Chapters 1-4

photo of Tom West reproduced with permission of family, click through to get larger photo at the Tom West 1000 Memories web site
Tom West

Chapters 5-9

Dave Platt's map of the vending machine maze part of the 550-point version of the Adventure game
maze from Adventure game

Chapters 10-16

Instruction cache write signal (from '399 patent drawings)
[see Fig. 116A, p. 284, with the "not yet" input signal controlling load ICP; also Fig. 134, p. 329, with "not yet" used in the PC clock logic]
MV/8000 circuitry

For long term consideration

MV/8000 system block diagram

Alliant Computer Systems

Intel 386 Project

In 2008, the Computer History Museum sponsored an Oral History Panel on Intel 386 Microprocessor Design and Development. Participants were John Crawford, Gene Hill, Jill Leukhardt, Jan Willem Prak, and Jim Slager, with Jim Jarrett serving as moderator. The 386 was a stopgap design for Intel that, like the MV/8000, turned out to be a commerical success when a bigger design effort faltered.

Crawford: [...] As it turned out, all the important folks on the architecture team were invited to go to Oregon and I wasn't, but I was asked to stay down in Santa Clara and work on a compatible architecture, something that would be a 32-bit compatible upgrade to the 286.

Jarrett: So you've used the term "gap filler;" it was filling a gap between the 286 and what?

Prak: It was called a "single high end architecture" and Glen Meyers and the other people moved to Oregon to do it. The code name was P7 and they were combining the ideas from both of the camps, the 432 camp and the Glen Meyers camp. [Note: the Oregon P7 project became the 80960, and should not be confused with the later 64-bit project in Santa Clara that was also named P7.]


Prak: [...] but we were definitely very limited in those areas as well as in building up the team. So for a long time probably, the first three quarters of the project, we definitely felt like the stepchild and to us it seemed that the P7 group was getting enormously more corporate support and assistance.


Slager: [...] We also had a lot of new college grads because Intel encourages the hiring of new college grads, and we found that we could get authorized to hire a bunch of those where we couldn't get experienced people because we always had headcount limitations. But the new college grad was like free talent to us. So I'm trying to think, maybe it was the graduating class of 1983 that we got like four or five new college grads; they came right onto the project into key roles and they had on-the-job training.


Slager: One aspect of having a young team is that it was rather easy to get them feeling urgency. In some other projects, you got experienced people, senior people, and they don't want to be pushed around so much. They can get it done next week instead of tomorrow.


Jarrett: Earlier you had talked about feeling like a stepchild and other teams getting more resources and I remember somebody was saying that one of the required readings for the new team members was Soul of a New Machine.

Crawford: Right yes.

Jarrett: So did you promote this sense of being this very small ragtag team that was doing all this?

Slager: I don't think we had to be promoted.

Crawford: It was there.

Hill: You didn't have to build it into the culture.

Crawford: But there was a lot of parallels between the situation described in that book which took place at Data General with a well-funded new machine being done in North Carolina versus the extension machine being done back at where Data General was first started in Massachusetts. So it was a great book, made a great read, and we could certainly empathize with what those guys went through.

Other links