The Innovators

By Walter Isaacs Walter Isaacson was the skilled writer and editor at Time magazine who later wrote biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steven Jobs. This is his history of the development of the digital revolution.  He is uniquely qualified to write this history because he understands technology and science, and he can write.  He begins with the story of Ada, the Countess of Lovelace, who also happened to be Lord Byron’s daughter.  She inherited her father’s poetry and her mother’s mathematics, and was an early theorist who pointed to the age of computers.

He traces the developments of the computer, programming, the transistor, the microchip, video games, the internet, the personal computer, software, and the Web.

This is the story of remarkable individuals such as Charles Babbage, Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John Mauchly, John von Neumann, Grace Hopper, William Shockley, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Jack Kilby, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Ray Tomlinson, Nolan Bushnell, Alan Kay, Vint Cerf, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, Marc Andreessen, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  It is also the story of Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, and of key universities like Harvard, MIT and Stanford.

The book is at times tedious, but at times quite interesting.  Perhaps someone who is a true technology buff would find it all interesting.

The most interesting part of the book was the last 10 pages, where Isaacson articulated a number of lessons from the digital revolution.  They are:

  1. Creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from lone geniuses. This was seen time after time after time.
  2. The collaboration was not merely among contemporaries but also between generations. The digital age was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.
  3. Even though the internet provided a tool for virtual and instant collaborations, in other distant collaborations physical proximity is beneficial. The best collaboration happens when people are together face to face.
  4. Throughout history the best leadership has come from teams that combine people with complementary styles. Great teams pair visionaries with operating managers who can execute the ideas. Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were both visionaries, but they needed an Andy Grove who could execute for them.
  5. The most successful endeavors in the digital age were run by those leaders who fostered collaboration while also providing a clear vision. Too often these are seen as conflicting traits: a leader is either very inclusive or a passionate visionary, but the best leaders could be both.
  6. Another lesson from the digital age is as old as Aristotle: “Man is a social animal.” Almost every digital tool was commandeered by humans for a social purpose: to create communities, to facilitate communication, to collaborate on projects and enable social networking.
  7. Machines are valuable but only humans bring creativity to the party. Human creativity includes values, intentions, esthetic judgments, emotions and imagination. People who appreciate math and physics must also appreciate the arts and the humanities and vice versa. Digital age creativity occurs at the intersection of the arts and the sciences, people who link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.