Impressions of “iCon” and “Crystal Fire”

Recently I was able to finish two great books on the history of computers: Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age and iCon: Steve Jobs and the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business. Both are excellent books, and written from different perspectives. iCon is essentially a high quality business book, and goes in depth on the management wars and personality conflicts that followed Steve Jobs through life. Crystal Fire is the story of the invention of the transister, starting with early CRT research and continuing until they revolutionized the computer industry.

iCon cites The Second Coming of Steve Jobsby Alan Deutschman repeatedly, and is best viewed as an improved telling of that story. Jobs transition from an advocate of the Apple Lisa and a foe of the Apple Macintosh, to an advocate of the Apple Macintosh and a foe of the Apple Lisa, is an example of the behind-the-scene stories told in iCon

Crytal Fire revolves around the careers of William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain, three researchers at Bell Labs who would share the Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention. In light of Narain Gehani’s Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel, it is fascinating that AT&T/Western Electric failed to be a leader in the semiconducter field because of its concentration on immediate application as opposed to research.

Both Steve Joos and William Shockley got along poorly with others, and their careers are marked by those who cut ties with them and left them. While Steve Jobs has done this by both appropriate the inventions of others (Apple II, Apple Macintosh, iMac, iTunes) and becoming a force in several markets, Shockley’s great triumph comes from the industry of competing firms he left in his wake. Shockley was a great trainer and a terrible manager. Thus, he identified the best talent, taught them how to run a semiconductor firm, and quickly lost them to start-up after start-up.

Interesting, the two stories converge in unexpected ways. A prominent character in iCon is Mike Markkula, who was CEO of Apple between 1981 and 1983, and would serve on the board until being forced out by Steve Jobs in 1997. Markkula joined the Apple saga as an angel investor with money he made while at Fairchild Semiconductor. Fairchild is the company formed by eight dissidents who the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory.