Top 15 Stories Published from the 1940s-50s that Did Well on Hacker News

Pinecone in an evergreen treeSome of what’s old is new again.

Below you’ll find a list of the top 15 stories published from the 1940s-1950s, spanning World War II to the beginning of modern computing, that have interested the Hacker News community over the last seven years. At Contextly, a content recommendation service for publishers, we call these stories “evergreen,” as they continue to be valuable long after their publishing date.

The list ranges from a healthy selection of George Orwell to a classic treatise on the possibility of using links to organize the world’s knowledge to the pitch deck for Disneyland. Oh, there’s Einstein dropping a bomb on capitalism, too.

A few themes emerged as I read through these.

Being first to predict something transformative in the future is intrinsically interesting, including what was missed in that prediction. Classics still resonate beyond the classroom, and the memory hole has not swallowed Orwell, which is doubleplusgood.

Formerly unpublished works from well-knonw authors catches attention, even when the new work isn’t particularly good. And, finally, secret government documents are very interesting — perhaps even more so for formerly having been secret.

A note on creation/methodology

Contextly created a list of the top 5000 evergreen stories on Hacker News via a data dive. We wanted to investigate how valuable evergreen content is to the Hacker News community, based on a hunch that such stories were very valuable. (Methodology can be found on that blog post).

Looking through some 1.5 million submissions and identifying 5000+ evergreen stories, we discovered that, on average, evergreen stories regularly got more upvotes, more comments, and longer comments than contemporary submissions.

That investigation came out of our interest and work identifying and surfacing evergreen content for our publisher clients that use Contextly’s recommendation technology to get readers to explore their publications more deeply.

This list, however, is more editorial. I compiled the highest scoring stories that had original publish dates from 1940 to 1959, read the stories and checked out the comments, adding a short analysis after each story.

Take the list as a guide to reading some amazing older stories, and as a way to think about how the past informs our present day and future.

  1. George Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf (1940)
    Source: Image taken from a book of essays.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 305

    The famous British essayist, novelist and anti-Fascist reviewed an English translation of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, predicting an eventual war with Russia and noting how Hitler’s appeal to bloodthirsty nationalism resonated more than the hedonism of capitalism, socialism and communism.

  2. Isaac Asimov Mulls “How Do People Get New Ideas?” (1959)
    Source: Technology Review.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 265

    An essay from the acclaimed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov written in 1959, given to a colleague, but not published until 2014. In it, Asimov examines how discoveries happen and who makes discoveries. “It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable.”

  3. George Orwell: Politics and the English Language (1946)
    Source: Probably a copyright-infringing online copy
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 206

    A classic essay from George Orwell excoriating weak writing and how it serves political and ideological interests. Specifically, Orwell attacks two lazy rhetorical devices: “staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.” Rightfully, this essay is still considered to be a classic of 20th Century Western essays. It’s aged well, and anyone who writes, for any reason, can and should learn from it.

  4. Simple Sabotage Field Manual (1944) (.pdf)
    Source: The CIA
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 182

    A manual for saboteurs declassified and published in 2012 by the CIA. What’s not to love? Think of it as a manual for the French Resistance, with suggestions on keeping tools dull and lighting stuff on fire. Timeless, but also not quite an evergreen as it wasn’t published to the world until 2012.

  5. As We May Think (1945)
    Source: The Atlantic
    Hacker News Discussion 1 and Hacker News Discussion 2
    SCORE: 183 (77+106)

    Perhaps the evergreen of evergreens for the age of networked computing. Dr. Vannevar Bush, then the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for the U.S. government, describes a vision of the future with miniaturized devices and the “memex,” a linked-together repository of the world’s knowledge. Stunningly perceptive for its time, the essay also hints at things that we’ve yet to build.

  6. Feynman: There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (1959)
    Source: First published by Caltech Engineering and Science. Available now on the website of Zyvex, a nanotech firm.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 138

    A talk so famous it has its own Wikipedia page, and also the earliest appearance (chronologically speaking) on Hacker News of famed physicist and writer Richard Feynman. In this lecture, Feynman talks about the possibility of organization at the atomic level, which sounds a lot like nano-technology.

    According to Wikipedia, the talk largely went unnoticed in the Feynman archive until the 1990s when nano-technology became a thing. “There is nothing that I can see in the physical laws that says the computer elements cannot be made enormously smaller than they are now.” The lecture was on December 29, 1959, making it the last item in this list, chronologically.

  7. A Study of Assassination – CIA (1953)
    Source: George Washington University’s National Security Archive.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 99

    Exactly what it sounds like. “[A]sassination can seldom be employed with a clear conscience. Persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.” But if you are going to, this manual has you covered on methods. Long falls, good; poisons, not so much. It’s not clear when the article was originally made public.

  8. David Ogilvy: “I am a lousy copywriter” (1955)
    Source: A book created in 1986 by his partners of his unpublished work. Since reprinted in Letters of Note.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 99

    Perhaps the most famous “ad man” ever, David Ogilivy wrote this letter explaining his work habits, which he called appalling. They involved working from home, sniping at his wife, and sometimes rum — and lots and lots of drafts. “I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor.” Not bad advice for most any kind of writing.

  9. The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956)
    Source: First published in 1956 in Science Fiction Quarterly. Now on, perhaps without permission.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 98

    A classic science fiction story from the legendary Asimov, exploring what happens when you ask a very smart computer a very hard question. I’m not going to spoil it here with some sort of TL;DR. Don’t neglect to read ’til the end.

  10. I, Pencil (1958)
    Source: Originally published as a pamphlet by The Foundation for Economic Education. Now on
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 89

    Leonard Reed takes a simple object, a pencil, and traces the complex industrial economy needed to create it, with the key line “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” The prose (and the artifice of a pencil telling its own story to the writer) hasn’t aged well, but the insight remains.

    Others have done the same thing, most recently an account of the production of a can of soda. For those intrigued by the lineage of the production of an object idea, hunt down Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man With A Movie Camera, a classic of Russian Constructivist filmmaking. It has an amazing sequence tracing the industrial production of an everyday object in early Soviet Russia.

  11. Disneyland’s original prospectus (1953)
    Originally published by BoingBoing in 2014; Clearer copy and other notes on Liam Keane’s personal site.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 84

    A pitch deck? For Disneyland? There’s no slides or lines that look like hockey sticks, but Disney paints a big picture for his potential investors. “DISNEYLAND will be the essence of America as we know it.” Shopping was key from the start, as was the odd fusion of nostalgia, fantasy and futurism.

    Definitely worth a read — though maybe more interesting historically than as a how-to pitch document. P.S. if you want some reading inspired by Walt Disney, try Cory Doctorow’s sci-fi Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom or Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler.

  12. George Orwell: Why I Write (1946)
    Source: Orwell’s Collected Essays; This essay hosted in Australia legally, due to shorter copyright terms there.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 70

    Orwell notches another win, this time with an essay talking about the various motives of writers, including politics and vanity, and which ones motivate him. “I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.” Perhaps of interest to the coding community, due to some of the similarities between writing and coding.

    Read it just because it’s got these two lines: “I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”

  13. Albert Camus: The Life of the Artist – A Mimodrama in Two Parts (1953)
    Source: Originally published in French a small Algerian journal in February, 1953, Appeared in English for the first time in 2013 in The New Yorker
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 57

    This is an odd bird – a play with no dialogue from a very dark period in Camus’s life. A minor work that explores the nature of creativity, fame and love — with some very humor, but not much subtlety. Hacker News readers treated it more as a way to talk about Camus’s influence on them generally. Not the best introduction to Camus — I’m still partial to The Stranger — but intriguing nonetheless.

  14. How work expands to fill available time (1955)
    Source: The Economist, which originally published it in 1955
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 52

    Oh, this is a fun one from The Economist‘s archives. A very early example of an evergreen story on Hacker News, with lots of upvotes but not many comments (3 to be exact). “The fact is that the number of the officials and the quantity of the work to be done are not related to each other at all. The rise in the total of those employed is governed by Parkinson’s Law, and would be much the same whether the volume of the work were to increase, diminish or even disappear.”

    Despite the fact there were only 3 comments, this one does my work for me: “Ooh, this is the original statement of Parkinson’s Law by C. Northcote Parkinson himself. It was later published as the first chapter of a book with other legendary humorous essays on management, including the one about the bicycle shed that led to the term “bikeshedding”. Later, “Dr. Lawrence J. Peter” (of “The Peter Principle”) followed in Parkinson’s footsteps. Nowadays the mantle is held by Scott Adams, of course.” Nice work, mechanical_fish

  15. Albert Einstein: Why Socialism? (1949)
    Source: Originally published in the first issue of the socialist Monthly Review in May 1949. Now on its website.
    Hacker News Discussion
    SCORE: 49

    In which Albert Einstein diagnoses modern society’s ills post-war, finds a disease called capitalism and suggests an answer: a planned central economy.

    “A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

    It’s a compact essay that’s worth reading for his thought process and economy of prose, even if you disagree with him. And, of course, it was absolutely inevitable that someone would quote Ayn Rand’s character John Galt in the Hacker News comments.

  16. If you found the list interesting and want to have Contextly surface the evergreen stories on your site – whether that’s a personal site, a company blog or a publication – you can install our native integrations for WordPress and Drupal, or drop us a line.

    Photo: Jeff Franklin: Creative Commons.

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