The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. By Walter Isaacson. Simon and Schuster, 560 pages, 2014.
Reviewed by Nick Webb.
When writing about the history of the computer, there are many perspectives available to analyze the development of the technology. Probably most intuitively, we can focus on the timeline of the technology itself. Alternatively, we can focus on the individual steps required to bring that technology to fruition, from conceptualization of the idea to the delivery or use of that technology as a working product. Or we can look at the climate of development. What are the driving forces at play in the wider world that caused, influenced, or accelerated development of this new device, idea, or fundamental technology? All three of these approaches provide us with a coherent narrative thread that enables us to follow through the progression of technology over time. Alternatively, as in the new book from Walter Isaacson, we can instead examine the people behind the development of the technology, and use these people and their lives as the lens through which to examine how technological progress is made.
In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Isaacson brings the people and personalities behind the development of the computer, and its emergence as the ubiquitous information machine, into focus. The book begins with Ada, Countess of Lovelace, Lord Byron’s mathematically gifted daughter, and with her role in first translating, and then significantly embellishing, notes on the workings of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, arguably the first design of a general purpose computer. Interestingly, for a book that focuses on the innovators behind the development of digital age technology, this is the only chapter to bear the name of an innovator, instead of an innovation. The reasons for this become clear later.
It is in this first substantive chapter that the problems inherent in Isaacson’s approach become apparent. First, the focus on individuals requires a non-linear approach to the development timeline. By necessity a person is introduced, in conjunction with his or her invention or contribution. Then we need to step back into the personal narrative of that individual for the background of his or her life to this point. We then step forward again, to further examine their contribution or influence, during which we are likely to encounter other new individuals. This in turn often necessitates a short biography of the life of this new person. The consequence of all this jumping around is that it makes tracking the coherent development timeline of the technology significantly harder. Of course, that isn’t necessarily the focus of Isaacson’s text, and yet it is so fundamentally the backbone of the narrative that a feeling of discombobulation is hard to overcome.
Second, it is not clear that the short biography we get of an individual actually contributes much to the understanding of the development of the technology concerned. For example, with Ada we hear details of her life in court, and her pursuit of mathematics, but none of this really explains the reasoning or rationale as to her attraction to the analytical engine as a device, or Charles Babbage as its creator, other than perhaps giving some insight into her particular interest in the blend of mathematics and poetic learning understandably inherited from her father. Indeed, the narrative around Ada Byron also contains details of the lives of her relatives, her infamous father Lord Byron’s many indiscretions among them, which seem to have little relevance to her actual contribution to the understanding of Babbage’s machine. That said, this first chapter is interesting, more for the concept it represents rather than the details it contains. By far the biggest contribution this book makes is to report on the roles women played in the progress of computing since its very inception, so often overlooked or omitted, willfully or otherwise, in the history of computer development.
What follows in the book are chapters on the development of the programmable digital computer, and the associated components that made the computer both smaller and faster: the transistor, and the microchip. The stories behind these creations are well documented, but the contribution of this book is to bring us the stories of the men who developed these components. Again, for a book concerned with innovators, the chapter on the transistor takes time to detail specific labs (Bell Labs, in this instance), teams and technologies more than a particular individual, although it is undoubtedly the case that the name William Shockley recurs throughout the chapter.
Sandwiched between the development of the first computer (with contributions from Turing, Atanasoff, Berry, Mauchly, and Eckert, as expected) and the component parts that accelerated the computer (including the work of Shockley, Noyce, Gordon Moore and the rise of INTEL) is an interesting chapter on programming. Typically, in computer history narratives, programming is covered later, centering on the software crisis that arose in 1960’s. Instead, in this text, Isaacson introduces the idea much earlier and shows the crucial role women played in programming the first electronic, digital, programmable computer, the ENIAC, at the University of Pennsylvania. Here it is possible that many readers will first encounter the names of Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, and the most famous of all, Grace Hopper. The roles these women played is increasingly understood and publicized, but to see their contributions highlighted in this book is very welcome.
The second half of the book concentrates on the people behind video games, the Internet, and the transition to personal computing. It’s as we move into this area that we are dealing with increasingly familiar names: Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs among them. Presumably the principal audience for this book is those familiar with Isaacson’s previous works, including the biography of Steve Jobs. These well-known people and their personalities, responsible for driving the transition from mainframe scientific computing to the world of the personal computer, are certainly interesting, and Isaacson presents them well if without any new or revelatory information or presentation. For a book whose title focuses on the innovators behind technology, we learn little here that isn’t covered in a standard text of the development of the computer.
In a sense, this observation sums up the overall book. This is an engaging text that tells the familiar story of the historical development of the computer from a mathematical machine, to the information engine that it is today. The challenges with the book come as a direct consequence of the frame of reference chosen by the author to relay this story. Perhaps it is no surprise that an author whose prior books include a substantial number of biographies (including Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein) should choose the individual as the lens through which to examine innovation.
However, while these previous biographical subjects are all unquestionably innovators, is it generally the case that an individual, or group of individuals, is responsible for driving a revolution as in the case of onset of the digital information age? Not that the people highlighted in the new book are unimportant, but the danger lies in emphasizing the role of innovators, while ignoring the overall climate of development in which they worked. When we think of flight, the Wright brothers are chief among the innovators we would consider, but there is a risk that this anointing of individuals or groups tends to ignore the prevailing environment of innovation. With flight, how often do we consider the work of Borelli, Cayley, or Gustave Whitehead? It could be said that flight was an innovation that was undergoing simultaneous development at a number of places at the same time, driven by external forces, and the will to succeed. Although this text is titled The Innovators, in fact the chapters are more clearly a description of a technology, rather than an insightful look at the people behind the innovation.
The chapter that illustrates this most clearly is Chapter 2, “The Computer.” There are many names here, as is typically the case in a chapter on the development of the computer, where so much is attributed to Turing, Zuse, Atanasoff, Berry, Aitken, Wilks, and Flowers, such that a discerning biography of each would not be feasible, and indeed we are given only a short background concerning each. The focus of the chapter is, as it should be, the innovation itself. The drive to develop the most important of tools is bigger than the people, it is the climate, the wave of innovation that tells the story.
It is certainly true that there are innovators, and where they clearly exist this book does well to highlight their contribution, but not significantly more so than other, more traditional innovation-centric versions of the history of the computer. The subtitle of the book is How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, and yet perhaps that is the single most significant missed opportunity. It is true that the development of the computer has featured a small number of truly innovative people. Names such as Turing, Licklider, Kay, Charles Babbage, and Grace Hopper should be better known. Perhaps more interesting would have been a text that concentrated closely on a select group of true innovators. The opportunity to examine these key innovators might have uncovered similarities in approach, background, or drive that could be insightful. As it is, this text is a serviceable history of computing, as viewed through a particular lens. Of course, one could argue that this is the real aim of the book; to tell the story of the development of the computer to readers who are most interested in people.
In the conclusion of the book, Isaacson wraps the narrative around to suggest how Ada Lovelace would consider the development of the computer thus far. This chapter begins with a slightly dismissive conclusion regarding what Turing referred to as the “Lovelace Objection” to the notion of “thinking machines,” that machines will be able to originate thoughts of their own. This is part of a much bigger discussion, and it feels artificial, simply Isaacson’s way of completing the circle through this history, rather than a meaningful conclusion. There is finally some comparative discussion about some of the innovators mentioned in the book, but it’s too little, too late.
That does not diminish what it is in this text that is very welcome. All too often overlooked, the inclusion of people less well known in the popular understanding of the history of the computer is a valuable contribution. However, for a text that purportedly focuses on the innovators, there is too little exploration of the “why”: Why these particular people? Throughout the work, despite the title, it is clear that the advance of the technology is the driving factor behind the narrative, more than the people behind the innovation. While it is true that there are instances where the key innovator directly influenced the nature and direction of the technological development, it is equally true that for other developments, including the computer itself, it is not so clear that the history rests with a single individual, and a book myopically focused on this one mechanism to tell the story of technology seems to, at best, create problems in telling a coherent story. At the same time, there are many different pathways to the discovery of new information, and those that are drawn to the stories of people and personalities can use this text as a way to discover the interesting development of the computer as the ubiquitous information machine that continues to shape our lives.