Filling the Gaps

My book of choice for Christmas gifts was Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators (Simon and Shuster 2014, paperback). If you are like me, you have used the World Wide Web and Google for years, are a convert to smartphones, and have totally integrated your iPad (or the kids’ iPad) into everyday living. All these fruits of the digital revolution I have come to take for granted without knowing anything about how they came about. Didn’t Bill Gates and Steve Jobs invent everything? Well, no, they didn’t. And it is fascinating to find out who did.

Tracing the history of the “hackers, geniuses and geeks [who] created the digital revolution,” Isaacson relates the individual initiatives, and the feats of great collaboration, which led to our computerized digital world. His is an important theme: a “report on how innovation actually happens in the real world.” He discovers that there are “social and cultural forces that provide the atmosphere for innovation,” and that government spending and military-industrial-academic collaboration have intersected with the idiosyncratic loners and hackers to produce change. Most significantly, he notes “that the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences.” His is an upbeat message which points to the utility of interdisciplinary perspectives and which puts the lie to those seeking funding for only science and engineering.

The narrative begins with Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine in the 1830s, his proposed Analytical Engine in the 1840s, and the prescient “Notes,” describing it, by Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who laid out the basic concepts of the computers that would be built 100 years later. Isaacson traces the range of innovations which led to the computer, programming, the transistor and then the microchip and microprocessors, video games, the Internet, the personal computer, software, and the web. We learn about the origins of IBM, Unisys, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, Fairchild, Intel, DEC, Atari, the National Science Foundation, RAND, Microsoft, Apple, Google….

We learn about the Bell Labs and the Stanford Research Park, the Turing Machine, Presper Eckert and John Mauchly’s ENIAC, the interaction between advances in technology and in theory, the disadvantages of working in isolation and the benefits of group effort, the impact of war on science. We learn about Grace Hopper, coding, “bugs and debugging,” ENIAC’s women programmers, the stored program computer, the impact of silicon, the discovery of the transistor, how and why Silicon Valley came to exist, the rise of the “solid circuit,” patent litigation, the impact of pocket calculators, “Moore’s Law,” the importance of hackers, of Spacewar and Pong. Isaacson tells us about Vannevar Bush and the partnership of the military, universities and industry in creating the Internet, Joseph Licklider with his “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” and “Intergalactic Computer Network.” We read about the utility of routers, bite-size message units, a fully decentralized packet-switched network and a common Internet Protocol (IP). Also: the development of the “mouse,” the impact of the Whole Earth Catalog, and so forth.

We learn about big recurring issues: whether intellectual property should be freely shared or patent-protected to further commercial proprietary interests; which model most efficiently promotes innovation; artificial intelligence versus “augmented intelligence;” the symbiosis “between nurturing individual geniuses and promoting collaborative teamwork;” the stages of innovation from invention, to production, and then marketing; leadership styles and the culture of innovation; the challenge of creating simple and intuitive user interfaces; the importance of venture capital; the use of open processes and collaborative creativity in developing the Internet as an open, decentralized network; the struggle between large time-shared mainframes and personal devices. You get the idea. This is a history which dissects the big issues and trends of contemporary innovation.

Isaacson’s penchant for the individual human story, the back story, the context, and the politics, makes for fascinating reading. This is not a dry history of science. It is a passionate recounting of the individuals and institutions which have contributed to the world as we now know it. I was amazed at how little I knew. I am gratified that Isaacson has filled the huge gaps in my knowledge. Once I started the book, I could not put it down. And I intend to keep The Innovators on my shelf as a permanent reference. Maybe you will do the same.

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One comment

  1. Malcolm

    Hi Marion. Interesting post. I am a fan of Isaacson. Some of the history that you gpquote is fascinating, and it always amazes me to understand just how smart some of the science people were in the 1800-1900 period. Maxwell was a Scottish physicist lived in the first half of that period. Much of his math remains at the centre of E/M analysis today.

    You may have ignored one very key point, and that was the communications breakthrough. When we all graduated from UBC in the late 60’s the computer revolution had really taken hold. DEC was one of the largest manufacturers – after IBM and it was fun to have been a part of that. (The founder of DEC then made a speech that suggested that there would never be a need for a computer in a home!! DEC was gone some years later…). By the 1980s, computers were everywhere, but at that time, it still cost $1/min for a phone call from Vancouver to Toronto. I worked in the airline business at the time, and we had a single 56k channel from Toronto to Vancouver – that carried all reservations, check in at the airport and other data. By comparison, I am looking at a connection for my new house that will be several hundred times that capacity. This change in telecom technology changed a lot.

    Fibre optics changed the much of what we see and use. Without it, most computers would have been used for commercial and industrial purposes…. Bill Gates was quoted in a speech (1990-91) that suggested that we needed to be prepared for free telecoms.,, that was hard to believe at the time. In 1970, there were only 80 channels to Australia and the South Pacific… That is 80 calls at one time, and the old transcanada microwave could handle 2 TV channels and about 2,000 calls at any point in time… It was all that was available, those were the days of expensive calls that ou sometimes had to book in advance. Then came satellites, but for 2 way communications, the time delay to go up to the satellite and back (more than a quarter of a second – half a second when the return was considered..) was a big issue for users.

    Fibre optics took away all of these limits, and made telecom almost free. This enabled much of what you see today – the Internet in particular. The Web itself was invented at CERN in Switzerland, but the other innovation has been amazing. Our first computer in Electrical Engineering in 1968 cost over $60,000 and needed a special air conditioned room. My iPhone today has many hundreds of times more computing capacity, and rides in my pocket

    The last 50 years has been remarkable. It has been exciting to have been involved.

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