Book Review – Fire In The Valley

As a child of the 80s, and a learner of the 90s, I grew up in an exciting era in personal computing. I literally cut my teeth on a ZX Spectrum, and then after learning how that worked inside and out, as a family we eventually upgraded to an Escom IBM compatable PC. I started hacking BASIC programs when I was old enough to type and moved on to Pascal, Delphi and Visual Basic when I was in secondary up to Java, C# and more modern languages as time went on.

I’ve been in this industry a while. I know the struggles of the UK home computing industry, between Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry and the inevitable demise and arrival of Atari and Amiga. When we moved on to IBM PCs, I started to follow what was then the relatively mature industry, with Gates and Jobs as very prominent icons.

Whilst all this was going on, I had very little idea of the early history of personal computing, the things that happened before the Z80 processor and Clive Sinclair’s little black box. Fire In The Valley is a history of the personal computing from the MITS Altair through to the present day. I expected a dry history, a page by page presentation of facts and was pleasantly surprised by quite a compulsive page-turner giving a sense of real excitement to the early and developing industry.

Whilst Fire In The Valley claims to be a complete history of personal computing, it clearly thrives on the early years, with a distinctive focus on MITS, IMSAI, Processor Technology, Apple, the companies and cultures of the 1960s through to the 1990s. The late few chapters do focus on the rise of Windows, Apple and the post-PC era but the bulk of the book is on these early years.

The book is organised mostly around subjects rather than presenting a chronological history. Where one chapter will deal with the development of the computer manufacturing industry from the 1960s through to the mid 1970s you’ll then find yourself cast back to the mid 1960s for a discussion of early computer publishing. Check the dates whilst you’re reading to make sure you’re when you think you are and you’ll be fine.

I found this book surprisingly inspiring. It’s full of stories of geeks starting out businesses with very little, mostly from their garage sheds. Some rise, some fell, and it was interesting to see how much hard graft went in to building these empires. As someone coming in to the IBM PC era during the 90s, it was very easy to see these people as having it all handed to them on a plate, where the realities were lots of late nights, dodgy deals, fallen ventures and near bankruptcy.

It’s excellent reading, and really fills in the details for those of us working in the industry today.