By Steve Lohr
Software is an invisible art that has transformed our lives. In the 1950s, before John Backus's team developed the Fortran language that revolutionized the first generation of programming, it took corps of full-time programmers to run and debug one of the room-sized computers of the time. Today, programming languages have advanced so far and become so much easier to use that software tools are accessible to millions instead of a tiny computing "priesthood." With HTML, for example, anyone with a bit of training can set up a personal Web page, using a laptop that has many times the power of those early giant computers. In Go To, New York Times correspondent Steve Lohr chronicles the untold history of software and its maverick creators. In the original engineering culture of computing, hardware was the real science, respected and revered. Programming was merely a technician's chore, and programmers were considered the unruly bohemians of the field. Drawing upon original reporting and interviews, Lohr gives us an intimate portrait of the peculiar kind of genius that has always been drawn to this unique blend of art, science, and engineering. We meet leading figures from the postwar origins of computer programming to the open-source movement of today-imaginative originals such as Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, whose all-night stints at Bell Labs gave rise to the Unix operating system and C programming language that loosened the grip of IBM; Charles Simonyi, whose childhood as an Erector-set fanatic in Communist Hungary led to becoming the emigre architect of the spectacularly successful Word software used by millions; and James Gosling, whose dream of "virtual code" that could run on any machine became Java, the Internet programming language. Through these and other lively portraits of figures as diverse as Dan Bricklin, who daydreamed his way into inventing VisiCalc while a student at Harvard Business School, to Richard Stallman, the messianic programming purist who insists that all software should be free, we see just what it takes to build amazing new worlds in code. Along the way, Go To describes the surprisingly prominent role of women programmers in the early years, the rise of "software engineering," the constant journey to make it easier for nonprofessionals to program, and even reveals where the term "beta" came from. Computer programming has come a long way from its almost accidental origins. Programmers are trained and schooled-less likely to be selected by happenstance or culled from the ranks of chess champions, a recruiting tactic of the early days. Computer science is now a respected academic field and the software industry employs nearly nine million professional programmers worldwide. Software is the digital embodiment of human intelligence that animates not only our personal computers and the Internet but also our telephones, credit card networks, airlines reservation systems, fuel injectors, kitchen appliances, and more. Yet the programmers of tomorrow-the artisans, craftsmen, bricklayers, and architects of the information age-are still engaged in a painstaking step-by-step endeavor, more handcraftmanship than machine magic. With keen analysis and deft storytelling, Steve Lohr shows us how these remarkable creators of software transformed the world, and points to the ways they will change our future.