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The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson (2014)

6 Jun 2015

The Innovators
The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson (2014)
When I was a young reader I gobbled up biographies - by and large, the life stories of individuals whose actions helped change the world. As a result I read mostly about explorers and innovators, but the biographies available to children are substandard at best. They're often designed to promote an ideal or mythology cherished by the author, with crucial details intentionally omitted. As an adult I want a lot more details, the details that explain how and why someone acted as they did, but I'm not always up for an entire book on a person's life. In this manner Walter Isaacson's latest work, The Innovators, provides a useful role in our understanding of the technologists who shaped today's world.

Each chapter is a biographical vignette of one or more individuals who contributed to one major aspect of the modern computer industry - the creation of early computers; of programming; of the transistor; of the microchip; video games; the Internet; the personal computer; systems and application software; and the World Wide Web. The industry continues to develop so rapidly that fully half the book is devoted to changes of the last twenty-five years.

The first chapter is something of a departure from the rest of the book, focusing on the early computing ideas and efforts of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Isaacson focuses on Ada, whose ideas were important but which have been mythologized far beyond her actual accomplishments. Ada's chapter puts her accomplishments in perspective without diminishing them, but in the end it was Babbage who created the first computing device.

More important and even less appreciated are the creators of America's first computers, which evolved out of efforts at Bell Labs, IBM, and a handful of universities. Although the first efforts were sponsored by the military - ENIAC, the first functional computer, was created to compute ballistics trajectories for naval guns - these quickly morphed into commercial efforts to use the computers for basic counting and collating, such as for accounting and the census.

These early computers could be "programmed" only through extensive rewiring, but visionaries such as Alan Turing imagined a "universal computer" that could be "soft coded", or programmed, to behave like any other computer. In theory, all personal computers, tablets, and smart phones today fit that description although that is not what they are intended for. This chapter includes descriptions of one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century, John von Neumann, and one of the great early programmers, Grace Hopper.

The chapters on development of the transistor, the microchip, and video games are all moderately engaging but even a career technologist such as myself, having lived through most of these eras, finds them only peripherally interesting. These chapters do not answer open questions of current interest, although it is slightly interesting to read about the early video games that I watched emerge in bars and pinball arcades in the late 1970s.

The pace picks up with the early development of the Internet before the World Wide Web, the personal computer, and early software like CP/M, DOS, Visicalc, and Windows. I had already read several books on the early development of the Internet. The Innovators adds further evidence to my observation that there is no single, good explanation of the development on the Net. It seems to depend on one's orientation, either toward the universities that lead much of the technical research, toward the National Institute of Science, or toward the military. For instance, one long-standing belief is that the Net was created to be a redundant network that could provide communications to survive a nuclear attack. Isaacson interviews a number of early developers of the various networks that became the Internet and finds no consensus on the subject: some insist that was never even discussed, while others, such as the military sponsors, insist it was always an intended and important feature. So while the chapter on the Internet provides more information and some great stories, it provides little illumination.

More illuminating is the chapter on software, with its emphasis on the development of Microsoft by teenagers Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Gates and Allen each provide insights into the early motivations and personality of the other, and Isaacson fills it in with details of their early business deals and observations by others. From Microsoft he goes on to describe some of the software breakthroughs that sealed the early success of the Apple II+ computer; and Steve Jobs' early discoveries at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, which led to the development of the Macintosh, Windows, and most modern user interfaces.

By the time Isaacson gets to the development of the World Wide Web and the modern online world, the reader could not be faulted for flagging attention. After all, history is interesting when it fills in our gaps of past accomplishments, but when it catches up to modern times it reads more like yesterday's newspaper - current in a basic sort of way but not up to date enough to inform.

If The Innovators had been written as a comprehensive work on a single subject it would have to be said that the pace is spotty. Some chapters, especially the middle chapters, hold our attention with its plethora of details on subjects a half generation to a generation in the past, while others are interesting only for the sake of comprehensiveness. Since each chapter stands and falls on its own, the reader can put the book down and pick it up again later without losing context or tempo. There's a lot to be said for such a format on this topic, and allows me to rate it with four stars instead of three - great as a beach book or holiday treat.

You may also like this related article: The Future, by Al Gore (2013) (164)
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