A couple of years ago, we reviewed Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography of Steve Jobs and recommended it as a good read of histosry and technology. Now, Isaacson has shifted his perspective from the account of one person’s influence on technology to a history of many people who helped create the important place of technology and the internet in our lives today. The book is called The Innovators and it focuses on the stories of over 60 individuals, along with many partnerships spanning from the 1830’s to today.
It begins with an unlikely pariing of the technological visionary Charles Babbage and the daughter of the poet Byron. Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, was raised by her more scientifically oriented mother. Along with Babbage, Lovelace played a significant role in the study of creating “analytical engines” that were on a par with humans. Babbage saw that machines did not have to be set to one process or task. Ada Lovelace recognized that such machines could process not just numbers, but anything that could be notated in symbols. Isaacson notes that her “poetical science” fostered her belief in calculating machines that others in her time could not yet accept. Her line of thinking is what sowed the seeds for the digital age. As a woman, and as the daughter of a Romantic poet, Lovelace is an unlikely innovator, which is why her place at the start of the digital age is a great beginning to the book.
Isaacson’s point that it really took a village to create our digital age is evidenced when he tries to analyze who really invented the computer. His conclusion, after descriptions of many people involved in its inception in the 40’s and 50’s is that it was a group of people, all basing their work on the the knowledge of those before them. These innovations basically came from competent team work.
Isaacson’s chapters span the history of technology from programming, the microchip, and video games to software and the web. Filling in details with stories of these individuals and collaborators makes for a compelling book.
He details Bill Gates’ rise from his childhood years to the founding of Microsoft. While it is an interesting perspective of the man and genius, Isaacson emphasizes that without the skills of Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer, Microsoft would not have been the success that it became. Though he dropped out of Harvard, it was where Gates wrote his BASIC interpreter for the Altair personal computer, and the author makes the point that schools and institutions are part of the collaborative effort in the rise of technology. The details of Gates’ time at Harvard and his collaboration with others on writing BASIC for the Altair is riveting and will keep you turning the pages.
The final chapters chronicle the rise of the internet and those figures who played a major role in its relevance today. Again, Isaacson looks at collaboration, along with the necessary factors of venture capital and the support of institutions in government and education. Isaacson gives an interesting view of where the internet and technology are today and what lies ahead in the future. This is not a dry and scientific read. in typical Isaacson fashion, it is detailed in its descriptions, weaving a fascinating story of the history we are living today.