Monday, December 4, 2023

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

The seemingly ubiquitous biographer, scholar, university president, think-tank director, CNN chief, and editor of Time Magazine, Walter Isaacson, wrote The Innovators way back in 2014, which looks like a lifetime in the history of the development of computers. Nevertheless, with the exception of scanty attention paid to the development of artificial intelligence, this volume presents a lively and comprehensive picture of the development of calculating machines that have become indispensable in the modern world. Author of at least twenty volumes during the last thirty years, Isaacson has focused on the "great man (or woman)" theory of human progress, always writing about the people behind the ideas while making the ideas cogent for the thoughtful reader.

The story begins with Ada Byron (Lord Byron's only legitimate child) who became Ada Lovelace, and whose reputation remains bright in the world of applied mathematics, who saw the possibilities of Babbage's counting machine for more advanced applications. She is so important in the development of the idea of computers, that at least one major modern computer system was named after her. From mechanical devices, the computer industry developed as a variety of mechanical and then electronic devices made their appearance. Each idea, from  learning to program machines to produce answers, electric wires to transistors, to microchips, and more required reliance on past advances and the imagination to advance to the next step, as well as applications for those advances. Neither the microchip, the computer, the Internet, software, nor the World Wide Web itself was inevitable without the foregoing work or forward looking visionaries. 

Isaacson is a master of making links between advances that don't always easily emerge as inevitable advances growing in an ever widening universe of possibilities and making them coherent. Thus, the works of industrial giants like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs become necessary, but not sufficient, cogs in an ever-widening electronic universe. This is all presented in an approachable, almost friendly, writing style which makes the ideas we can't quite grasp into concepts the reader can see an appreciate without ever having any of the necessary skills to contribute to the ever expanding world of computers. 

 Isaacson takes a great person approach to the development of the ideas needed to culminate with the cyber world in which we're currently living, while also emphasizing the fact that great advances in nearly all areas of advance rely upon cooperation and collaboration between innovators, organizers, and entrepreneurs. Often great ideas in seeing the implications of an advance or in doing the math require someone to make the connections. It takes a different sort of personality to turn the resultant innovation into a salable product, making it possible for consumers to understand that they have a need it might fulfill. Thus, he emphasizes conjunction of brilliant ideas, useful applications, and finished products.

 Radio Shack TRS-80

 I have one, perhaps, personal quibble with the account of innovators who made computers available to the masses. Isaacson left out the role of Radio Shack and their TRS-80 home computer. Released in 1977, this home computer was the first computer I owned and where I began my learning curve. I got it from my mother and, later, sold it to a friend, so it did mighty work, back when so many of  us were learning to function in the cyber world...I never did learn to be a programmer, but I sure have worked any number of computers to the death over the years. 

Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson is a widely  known and widely read writer/administrator/television personality, and political advisor who has published numerous fine biographies. He's always readable!

I bought my copy of The Innovators in a bookstore as a remaindered book. 

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