The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson focuses on technological progress: how it starts, what factors influence an invention, and how inventions are brought to market. The author’s thesis states that innovation does not happen in a vacuum, each small step forward builds on and off another, that collaboration keys innovation. I’ll discuss this idea a little bit more below. One more thing, in this write-up, I’ll talk a lot about innovation. This can mean a lot of things but for the sake of clarity, I’m using innovation in the sense that a new product is validated in the marketplace.
The book’s plot follows the development of computers, with each new chapter symbolizing a new milestone innovation. I’ve listed a few major innovations worth knowing.
The Modern Computer
Charles Babbage’s’ conception of the Analytical Engine lead to the creation of programming loops. The US and British government idea elaborated on and extended this idea to perform code-breaking, birthing the Turing machine, a re-programmable machine that could solve any real number sequence. AT&T’s Bell Labs minimized the size of Turing’s machine by creating transistors, negating the need for clunky vacuum tubes to pass electric charges. Fairchild and Texas Instruments independently invented the semiconductor, a means to place multiple transistors on the same piece of silicon, rapidly enhancing the processing speed of computers; eventually each chip would handle multiple purposes, the microprocessor.
The Personal Computer
The US Government-backed ARPANET created Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) as a rule set to transfer data packets between machines that could survive single machine failure, ensuring that data can always be routed to its intended destination. At the same time as that protocol was developed, three companies approached the concept of widely usable personal computers: Microsoft began to license its operating software to anyone willing to build hardware, securing a contract with Altair and IBM; Apple created a closed system where they built PCs and OS’s together; and Linus Torvalds created the Linux, an open source operating system that encouraged improvement through developer collaboration.
Popularizing the computer
As people begin to use their own computers, the dial-up modem is created. In order to store information for others to access, Tim Berners-Lee creates Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) which addresses information on a per page basis (each page is given its own unique access code: URL) and Hypertext Markup Language to create text with clickable URLs. Finally, the story concludes with Marc Andressen’s Mosaic, the first universal web browser which also introduced clickable images as well as text.
The book provides excellent history on how computers were made. However, it wasn’t so much the point-by-point plot that struck me as I read, it was the relationships between teams that branched one innovation to the next that was worth spending more time thinking about. How innovation is interwoven through two necessary components: physical possibility and team capacity.
Component One: the idea is technically possible
Had Charles Babbage had access to the same technological improvements we have today, he could have compiled the Analytic Engine, his life’s work. He published hundreds of pages on these machines’ capabilities and the process of building them, but he was held back by the fact that he couldn’t transmit electrical signals through any means, let alone use the highly effective transfer of those signals through microprocessors the way we do today. Isaacson summarizes this best when he wrote: “Innovation occurs when ripe seeds fall on fertile ground. Instead of having a single cause, the great advances of 1937 came from a combination of capabilities, ideas, and needs that coincided in multiple places” (39).
Innovation sprouts from the combination of possibility and need. Take the internet for instance. The internet’s governing rules came about through TCP/IP, which in turn were only prescribed because universities needed a way to send data through the multiple machines that each had in order to make them more powerful. Humans need to communicate information and pass data between long distances. This need has always existed as we’ve spread across the globe, and humans have always tried to solve for efficiency: from the time people started writing letters to the Pony Express through now, the internet age. But the possibility of creating an instant-access tool like the internet needed building blocks to become possible. It needed computers to create endpoints, it needed protocols to govern data movement, and it needed online access to make data transfers possible. As Einstein said, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way, but intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” Remember this quote, it’s about to play a vital part in the next story.
The beauty of human ingenuity is that people constantly push the bounds of what’s possible. This means that this component of innovation is always progressing, new products and ideas are being realized rapidly and, as Moore’s law continues to operate functionally, this will always propel products forward as they get faster, smaller, and add more capabilities. However, progress itself is not enough to spur innovation on its own.
Component Two: the team can achieve success for the product
Take the story of John Atansoff, the man who first created computer memory. He built a mechanical calculator that stored previous calculations in electrical charges and could recall those calculations after the fact through those charges. However, Atansoff’s machine, built at Iowa State in isolation with a single graduate assistant, was moved to the basement as he was called to the military and later disassembled to not be heard from again.
By chance, a physicist, John Mauchly, had met Atansoff at a convention and visited Iowa State to see the machine before it was disassembled. He was struck by the way Atansoff had created a computer memory and communicated it to his friend, a highly trained engineer Pres Eckert. They used that component as their team at University of Pennsylvania synthesized numerous components to create the first-ever electronic, programmable, general purpose computer, the basis of all computers going forward.
So what is true innovation? Numerous history books don’t even note Atansoff’s contribution because it lacked scope, scale, and general public knowledge. It didn’t actually contribute to innovation because there wasn’t a team in place to bring it to the public. It wouldn’t ever be known had Mauchly’s team not used it in their machine and turned that loose. Here, I really like the needs of innovation as discussed by Isaacson: “Innovation requires having at least three things: a great idea, the engineering talent to execute it, and the business savvy (plus deal-making moxie) to turn it into a successful product” (215).
A great idea that exists in a vacuum isn’t an idea at all. It has to be spread through the world, people have to be convinced that the idea is worth adopting. That’s where the team comes in and why the team is so important in the process of innovating. This is the key of the book: ideas + team = execution. There’s no execution without both halves of the equation fulfilled.
Ultimately, this is why I would recommend this book. It is a plain history of computers, where they came from, what they consist of, and how it happened. However, it’s the ‘how’ that propels this book above other history books I’ve read. The author really connects that last part, the ‘how’, to everyone. He shows that the idea that one person alone can innovate is a fallacy, it takes a group of people working together to actually move humanity forward. The engineer and the business-person together make the team, not one or the other.
In sum, come for the plot, stay for the lessons.