Saturday, January 24, 2015

Book Review - The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators
by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 2014

Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators provides a superb history of computing technology, from it’s earliest beginnings in the mid-19th century, through the invention of transistors and integrated circuits that replaced the vacuum tube technology of World War 2 era computers, to today’s smart phones and global Internet.  Isaacson explores the circumstances and personalities surrounding each technological leap and weaves them together into an entertaining narrative, leaving the reader with both an understanding of the history of innovation, as well as the context in which these innovations were made possible.

Most of the names and stories behind them are familiar.  For example, Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace and her work with Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 1840’s.  More than just telling the history and sequence of events, he describes Ada’s parents, her father the poet Lord Byron and her mother a mathematics tutor, and posits that Ada inherited elements of both of their sensibilities, leading to her fascination with both the scientific and philosophical elements of early computing theory.  Isaacson takes this approach throughout, drawing some tenuous conclusions about how early influences led to later events.  His connections are at least plausible, however, and as a whole don’t detract significantly from the storyline.

Other familiar names include Alan Turing, Clause Shannon, John von Neumann, Grace Hopper, Gordon Moore, Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and many others whose contributions are well known.  In addition to these famous innovators, Isaacson delves into contributions made by less famous instigators of changes such as Stuart Brand, who fostered connections between southern California’s technology community and the ‘hippie’ culture of of 1960s and 70s.  He shows how these connections led to communal aspects of technological progress, such as the early bulletin boards (that gave way to modern forums and blogs) and the open source software movement.  Isaacson makes the case well that these innovations are just as important as the technical ones that make them possible.

Throughout the book, Isaacson highlights the collaborative process surrounding most of the innovations described.  Most scientific advancements require visionaries, who can see the possible future created by new technology, and skilled craftsmen and engineers, who buy in to the vision and are able to make it a reality.  To help make this point, he repeats a sentiment often attributed to Thomas Edison, “visions without execution are hallucinations.”  Additionally, Isaacson makes the unsurprising conclusion that both the idea and the timing are important.  A brilliant idea conceived before supporting technologies exist to implement it is often lost to history, or at least has to sit on the sidelines until the timing is right.

A well researched and skillfully written narrative of the history of computing from it’s very beginnings, The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson, should be required reading for any computing or information technology professional.

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