The Innovators

How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

by Walter Isaacson

Book Review by Laurie

In November 2020 I began reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson. He is the author of a number of biographies including Steve Jobs and Einstein: His Life and Universe. He has also been the chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine.

The Innovators is a narrative that explains the development of the core innovations of the digital age, from mathematical logic to transistors, integrated circuits, video games, computers, software, the Internet and the World Wide Web. It illustrates that most of these advances were not the result of solo inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, but were the result of collaboration between many individuals in one or more organizations. Much of the teamwork involved expanding ideas that already existed, but which had not yet come to fruition. In the most productive teams, members had a wide range of specialties, with complimentary styles. Also beneficial was the pairing of visionaries with operating managers (frequently accidental) so that new ideas could be executed.

Isaacson identifies three ways teams were formed in the digital age. 1) Government funding and organization built the original electronic computers and networks (ENIAC and ARPANET). 2) Private enterprise such as the research centers of large corporations (Bell Labs and Xerox PARC) and new entrepreneurial companies (such as Texas Instruments, Intel, Apple, and Microsoft) created transistors, integrated circuits, solid state computers, and software. 3) Peers working on a common voluntary endeavor created open-source developments such as the World Wide Web, WikiPedia, Linux, GNU, and Firefox.

The book has been called “[A] sweeping and surprisingly tenderhearted history of the digital age …”2, “A panoramic history of technological revolution”3, and “It is a stirring reminder of what Americans are capable of doing when they think big, risk failure, and work together.”4

I was especially interested in this book because my college education (Electrical Engineering: 1961 – 1966) coincided with the development of transistors while some of my early development projects in industry involved early integrated circuits. I ran punch card programs on a mainframe computer in college and early personal computers running MS-DOS (first released in the early 1980s) in industry. I remember using Microsoft Word running on an MS-DOS computer, before the advent of Windows 3 in 1990. I used personal computers daily since the late 1980s and also remember using 300 baud acoustical modems to access the Internet while in industry.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the origins of today’s current digital technology. It is well organized, well written, and provides much more detail about the origins of the various technologies than is commonly known.

(I should note that Isaacson doesn’t use the term hacker in the subtitle to refer to computer criminals, today’s commonly understood meaning due to the mass media usage of the word since the 1990s. Instead, it means individuals who enjoy the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming limitations of software systems to achieve novel and clever outcomes. “Hacking” is the act of engaging in activities (such as programming or other media) in a spirit of playfulness and exploration.1)

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1 – Wikipedia: Hacker Culture
2 – New York Times Book Review
3 – Kirkus Reviews
4 – Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic

More Information

Wikipedia: Hacker culture
Washington Post: On its 20th birthday, Wikipedia might be the safest place online
Amazon: The Innovators (paperback)

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