Book Review

The Discrete Charm of the Machine by Ken Steiglitz

05 Jan 2022


In the early 19th century, foundational discoveries in the field of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and, oddly enough, embroidery paved the way to developing the lightning-quick computers we rely on today. Steiglitz explores the course of impact of these discoveries to inform the reader on how he believes technology will advance in the future.

More History Than Science

Steiglitz’s most exciting literary choice, as prefaced by his quip in the introduction, was to leave (most) equations out. The book is written for a general audience; Steiglitz includes clear explanations of scientific and mathematical material he reviews, although some material benefitted from background knowledge. Steiglitz has successfully written an approachable, in-depth narrative on analog and digital machines. However, The Discrete Charm of the Machine still has much to offer to seasoned computer science veterans. Especially in the treasure trove of the footnotes, where he hides small tidbits, proofs, papers, and the occasional mention of the Antikythera device that veers off his train of thought. The resources he includes are a nice addition for those looking for more specialized readings on the book’s topics but are not essential to illustrate the big picture.

A modern replica of the Ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism, a device Steiglitz frequently cites in his descriptions of analog machinery

Narrative structure plays a significant role in how Steiglitz portrays his timeline. At the heart of The Discrete Charm of the Machine is Steiglitz’s definition of a modern computer, which is broken up into six general concepts revealed by the discoveries he writes about. Each chapter draws the reader closer to his definition until we get a clear understanding of the path history took to reach our level of machine sophistication. The book rarely abides to chronology and to great effect. Instead, Steiglitz chooses to highlight the advantages that digital machines had over analog ones, a concept which he discusses in great detail. He does this by alternating descriptions of analog machines and their digital counterparts, focusing on what each machine contributed towards his definition of a modern computer. Despite this, the reader is never left behind, unless they are willing to follow the footnotes in great detail. The brilliance of The Discrete Charm of the Machine is in its simplicity.

Final Thoughts

Steiglitz excels in providing context to the quick advancement of digital machines. He expertly describes fundamental computing topics like ‘transistors’ and ‘NP-complete algorithms’, tying them together to form a basic understanding of new emerging fields in computer science. The Discrete Charm of the Machine is a must-read for computer science enthusiasts and casual readers alike.

– Emil Lars Kovačev



developed with aeroplane, a Jekyll framework