Tagged: Walter Isaacson

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.

back to top