Review: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

By Julian M Catchen

[This book review originally appeared on Slashdot on September 20, 2000]

Title: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
Author: Steven Levy
ISBN: 0-385-19195-2
Publisher: Anchor Press / Doubleday, New York, 1984

After reading a reference to Steven Levy for the nth time on Slashdot, or hearing him discussed at a LUG meeting, I decided it was time to find a copy of his book and see what it was all about. Slashdot has made a few statements over the past months in effect trying to *educate* those new to hacking. One way to do this is to spread the rich history of the hacker ethic. There are certain books that have made their mark among hackers over the years, and I think Steven Levy's, Hackers, is near the top of that list. For that reason, I thought it would be useful to reexamine a book that was first published 16 years ago and hopefully convince some people to go find a copy and read it.

Getting the Book

The first challenge to reviewing this book was finding a copy. It was first printed in 1984 and, as far as I know, it ran its final printing in 1994. Not having a Used Bookstore nearby, I decided the Net was the best choice. So I set out looking it up on the usual Amazon and Barnes and Noble sites. Amazon suggested checking back soon, but seeing as the last printing was six years ago I wasn't holding my breath, plus the fact that Amazon's "defensive" patents make me leery of giving them my business. Similarly, B&N did not have the book either, but they did have several copies listed in their network of rare and used book affiliates. But the cheapest version of the Hackers I could find was over $60. So, the next step was to search Yahoo, but after trying a dozen or so sites, I had no luck. All of them seemed to carry an unrelated subset of the subject I wanted: Hacking. That's when I stumbled on This site is one of my favorite discoveries of the year. This site brings together over 6,000 local bookstores and puts their catalogs online. Best yet, the site does not mark the books up any higher than they are in the local shop. And, they give you the option of buying through Abebooks, or going directly to the local site by internet or phone to purchase. Here I happened to find several different copies of this book, many of them the same entries as I found on the B&N site. The great part though, is that the version from B&N for $60 was selling directly from the shop (through Abebooks) for $35! So, I bought it. Of course, there is always the public library.


Levy's narrative talks about three different generations of hackers: the Orthodox Hackers, the Hardware Hackers, and the Game Hackers. The story starts in the very late 1950's at MIT not at the console of a computer, but at the miniature models of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC). The MIT professor who shepherded the TMRC, and hence the first hackers, had connections to the phone industry (which of course had the best electronics of the day). These Hackers used them to build an incredible railroad model. Work was affected however, when the hackers discovered a punch card machine in the basement of building 9. Levy describes in intricate detail the first hackers interaction with first the punch card machine and then, their TX-0 and to the Hacker's paradise, the PDP-6.

Along with those first Hackers, Levy describes the bureaucracy that they hate, and its incarnation at MIT, the IBM "Hulking Giants."

From MIT, Levy branches out in his exploration of the early Hackers to the west coast and the Stanford AI lab. He discusses in depth how the movements in the 60's affected the hackers, and how some of them shared their populist views by taking hacking to the streets to support the ideas of free speech and access to information. Levy discusses the debate that raged over whether or not hacking for MIT was The Right Thing, considering almost all of their funding came from ARPA (which was a part of the DoD).

This eventually leads into the second generation of hackers, the Hardware Hackers. These individuals were, unlike the MIT and Stanford Hackers, decentralized, with no academic structure to support their activities. The second generation of hackers cared less about software but instead, fought for the idea that computers should be liberated from the massive industry bureaucracies, led by IBM, the maker of the Hulking Giants. They formed computing clubs which eventually fostered the introduction of kit computers. Levy talks in depth about the Homebrew Computer Club and its rivals. He entitled an entire chapter, "WOZ." Levy diagrams the introduction of the Altair, to the building of the Sol, the TRS-80 and finally the Apple II.

The Apple II sets the stage for the third generation, the Game Hackers. These were anyone who could write software for the meager processors in the Apple II and the Atari 800, the vast majority of which were games. Levy tells the story of the game company Sierra On-Line and its humble beginnings. And, he tells the story of the game hackers, who were the first in large numbers to become wealthy beyond their beliefs (spurred by 30% game royalties.)

The narrative is not all happy either. Levy discusses the controversy Bill Gates caused when he found out that Hackers were "stealing" his BASIC interpreter for the Altair. He also talks about the chaotic split that occurred between the original Game Hackers and the game publishers as the industry matured and its new bureaucracy cut out Hackers, no longer giving them authorship credit for games and slashing their royalty shares. Finally, Levy discusses the tragic split of the MIT Orthodox Hackers as the first LISP machines went into production.

The final chapter is entitled "The Last of the True Hackers" and tells the story of a young MIT Hacker named Richard Stallman who liked to be referred to by his initials (RMS) because it symbolized his login name.

Though the discussion of the last 40 years worth of computers is in depth, Levy's is a story of people, and how their interaction with machines created a new kind of ethic. Levy defines and explains what exactly The Right Thing is, and why it was so important to the Hackers. He discusses all of the computers in terms of the people who used them. From the MIT Hackers Greenblatt and Gosper to the Berkeley street Hacker Felsenstein to the master of Atari 800 assembly language John Harris to Apple Computer's Steve Wozniac, Levy's narrative runs deep into the Hacker ethic within these individuals and what they did for the fledgling computer industry.

Levy's book chooses to follow the course that the Hackers made. In fact, the word "UNIX" is mentioned exactly one time in the entire novel, on page 434. The invention of UNIX is not covered, and the only languages Levy mentions are: assembly, LISP and BASIC. There is also no mention of the development of ARPAnet, it just sort of appears when the Hackers start to utilize it. This is truly a story of people and not simply a history of the Computer "Industry."


The most important reason to find a copy of this book, though, is to read with the now 15-year hindsight that exists. It is truly amazing to see the concepts Levy helped define take form and continue to prove themselves true. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested where *it* all came from, especially to those who have only stumbled upon hacking in the past few years. I wonder now if Levy is still around, and if so, whether he has updated his copy of Hackers to include the forth generation of Hackers, the GNU/Linux Hackers.

Copyright 2000, Julian Catchen
Last Modified, September, 2000