The Innovators by Walter Isaacson tells the story of the key figures who cultivated ideas and set off what we now know as the digital revolution. From Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the innovation of computers and the internet was driven by collaborative teams. Isaacson highlights the major advances in electronics, computer hardware, programming, internet, and artificial intelligence that led to the computer that we all know today. Collaboration between academics, the government, and private companies paved the way for much of this innovation.
“The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them.” (480)
Isaacson begins the book by telling the story of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron and computer visionary whose ideas were 100 years before her time. Ada, working with Charles Babbage in England, theorized about machines that would later become known as computers. In the 1840’s, Ada understood that computing machines could eventually be designed to go beyond simple mathematics; she envisioned that one day a “general purpose” machine would be possible. In her notes, Ada outlined the very first variations of computer programming. She realized that people could create sequences of operations and commands that could make machines produce a desired result. Isaacson draws the thread of Ada’s original ideas throughout the entire book, showing how her theories built the foundation for later innovators to develop increasingly complex computers.
The book then goes on to describe the teams of innovators who were able to realize Ada’s theories and create working, viable computing machines. Although it is difficult to credit one machine with being the first true ‘computer’, Isaacson allots much of the credit to a team led by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, who developed ENIAC, one of the first working general-purpose computers. He notes that it is difficult to assign the credit to single innovators or teams for a number of reasons. First and foremost, when it comes to computers, ‘inventions’ are born from innovators who expand on the ideas of their predecessors. Vary rarely, if ever, does a single innovator come up with an idea completely on their own. Isaacson notes how military and government-funded research furthered the digital revolution during the early 20th century. Code breakers like Alan Turing were able to put their theories into practice and develop new kinds of computing machines. Turing is also known for coming up with the Turing test, a test of a computer’s ability to disguise its own identity and function like a human.
Isaacson organizes his book in chronological order, first describing the development of the actual machinery that made up early computers. He describes how people eventually came to realize that computer programming was just as important as hardware engineering; many of the first programmers were women. They included Grace Hopper, who worked at Harvard, and Jean Jennings, who was part of a team of women who worked to program ENIAC.
Isaacson is a biographer. Much of the book tells the story of the digital revolution through the stories of the individuals who made it happen. From J.C.R Lidlicker, who published a paper about the potential symbiosis between man and machine in 1960, to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Isaacson investigates how individuals collaborated to form a gradual movement of innovation.
Each chapter of the book explores a different stage of the innovations that have led to the modern computer. Isaacson discusses the impact that video games coming out of places like MIT and Atari had on computer programming and culture. An early version of the internet, ARPANET, was developed by Bob Taylor and Larry Roberts. These developments paved the way for the personal computer, and companies like Apple and Microsoft began to emerge under the direction of innovators such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak. The book is more focused on the ways in which the innovations came about rather than the actual science behind the new developments. Though Isaacson does spend some time describing the inner workings of the computers, the main takeaway from the book lies in the process of developing ideas, rather than the science behind computers themselves.
The Innovators is a story of collaboration and development. Isaacson sheds a light on the people who contributed to the digital revolution—a number of whom are world-famous executives, and a number of whom’s names have been relatively lost in the pages of history. The story is one of how ideas worm their way through generations, across continents, and between colleagues. The book emphasizes that none of the innovations that led to the modern computer could have happened coming from individuals alone.
In Depth: Innovation by way of Collaboration
The most important thread that Isaacson draws throughout the whole book asserts that innovation is best achieved through collaboration. All of the stories that Isaacson recounts in the book can be tied together with this theme. It’s a lesson that is just as important to us today as it was to Ada Lovelace in the 1840s: world-changing developments are realized through the work of teams, not individuals. Although history remembers the names of individuals who drove the digital revolution, like Alan Turing, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, it is important to understand that none of their work could have been possible without the sharing of ideas and collaboration of experts across fields.
One person who understood this reality well was John Mauchly, one of the people Isaacson credits with being able to get one of the first general purpose computers up and running. Mauchly was well known for gleaning ideas from multiple sources and applying them to his own project at the University of Pennsylvania. His visit to Iowa State in 1941 to see a rendition of a computer built by John Vincent Atanasoff. Mauchly learned from Atanasoff’s machine, and used some of the principles in building ENIAC. There was an ensuing legal battle over whether Mauchly stole Atanasoff’s intellectual property, but the bottom line is that Mauchly was able to create a working, general-purpose computer before anyone else. He didn’t come up with every single aspect of ENIAC, but he had the competency to synthesize ideas and build a capable team of engineers and innovators.
“Mauchly and Eckert should be at the top of the list of people who deserve credit for inventing the computer, not because the ideas were all their own but because they had the ability to draw ideas from multiple sources, add their own innovations, execute their vision by building a competent team, and have the most influence on the course of subsequent developments” (84)
Isaacson’s emphasis on collaboration makes the reader realize how teams, not individuals, of innovators have written the pages of digital history. He realizes that inventions and groundbreaking developments are not bolts of lightning caught in a bottle— they are the result of a culmination of generations of work by teams of individuals. Was Steve Jobs a visionary in creating Apple and making the company what it is today? Of course. However, he didn’t come up with the entire design of the iPhone in an epiphany. It was a continuation of his own ingenuity, the contributions from a collaborative team, and the developments made by those who came before him. In the final chapter, Isaacson writes of how the best leaders, including Jobs, realize the power of collaboration. Steve Jobs designed the new Apple headquarters (which I believe we will have the chance to visit in California) with collaboration in mind. There are open workspaces, and the flow of the building is even designed to foster personal connections between workers.
Digital innovation is not a simple science. It is not achieved by individuals, but rather by diverse groups of people, all adding their unique input to a project. Walter Isaacson emphasizes this point in The Innovators.
My Assesment and Recommendation
I enjoyed reading The Innovators and would recommend it to someone similarly interested in technology and innovation. Like Isaacson’s biographies, the book is long and dense at points. It is a history of the multitudes of individuals who contributed to the movement that is the digital revolution. In my opinion, Isaacson does a fantastic job of weaving the stories together to show the reader how ideas flowed from generation to generation, eventually leading to developments and breakthroughs. This was a good read for someone interested in business and how ideas develop. Though relatively long at nearly 500 pages, Isaacson’s book offers a good history of the forces behind the digital revolution and an interesting analysis of the role of collaboration throughout the history of computers.