cover image The Universal History of Computing: From the Abacus to the Quantum Computer

The Universal History of Computing: From the Abacus to the Quantum Computer

Georges Ifrah. John Wiley & Sons, $24.95 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-471-39671-0

A fascinating compendium of information about writing systemsDboth for words and numbersDand ancient systems of calculation, this followup book by the author of The Universal History of Numbers will enthrall specialists, though its perplexing structure may put off other readers. Part One begins with a 19-page chronology of significant events in the development of number writing up to 1654, followed by 38 pages of charts with codes and figures that are not explained or referenced anywhere in the book. Some of these charts make sense, such as a diagram showing how medieval accountants wrote very large numbers with Roman numerals. Others remain cryptic. However, in Part Two, Ifrah begins to weave together a cogent intellectual history of physical representations of numbers and calculations with compelling stories and philosophical analyses of computational processing. Occasionally, his facts are ungrounded: for example, he places John Patterson (the promoter of the cash register, born 1844) before the Revolutionary War. But since the book is primarily concerned with ideas rather than people or events, this sort of carelessness is not a major problem. Originally writing in French, Ifrah distinguishes sharply between ""computing"" and ""computers""Dand the modern computer has almost no place in his story. Unfortunately, the translator chooses to use ""compute"" in both senses, which makes some sections of the book unintelligible, and may lead readers to mistakenly expect this book to be a history of computers. (Oct.)