Paul's Reviews > The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
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Almost everything we do these days has some link to the world wide web, or involves interacting with some sort of computer, but how did these things become so pervasive and essential? In this book Isaacson writes about the people that made the companies, that made the products that we all now use.

Starting on the earliest computer, the Analytical Engine conceived by Charles Babbage, which he made with Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace. It was a purely mechanical device, made at the very limits of engineering capability at the time. It took another century until the next computers surfaced. A man called Vannevar Bush was instrumental in developing a differential analyser for generating firing tables, followed in World War 2 by the Colossus at Bletchley used for attacking the Nazi Enigma codes. These new room sized contraptions used the old vacuum tube valves, and consumed vast amounts of energy and took large numbers of people to maintain and use the machines.

For computers to reach the point where you could get more than one in a room, the technology would need to be miniaturised. The team in America that achieved this using the semi conducting properties of silicon would earn themselves a Nobel Prize. This moment was the point where the modern computer age started, especially when it was realised that there could have a variety of components, and therefore circuits on a single piece of silicon. These new microchips were initially all taken by the US military for weapons, but as the price of manufacture fall, numerous commercial applications could be realised.

Some of the first products that used microchips that the general public saw were calculators, but as engineers started to use their imaginations almost anything was possible. The coming years saw the development of the first video games, personal computers that you could fit on a desk and the birth of the internet. Most of these innovations came out of one place in California that we now know as Silicon Valley. It formed a new way of working too, with unlikely collaborations, spin offs and the beginning of software and hardware companies that have now become household names.

It didn’t take too long for people to start wanting to hook computers together. The original ARPNET was a military network, but it soon had links to academia and not long after that the geeks found it. It was still a niche way of communicating, until Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web with hypertext linking, and the world was never the same again.

Isaacson has written a reasonable book on the history of computing and the internet, and the significant characters and people who discovered or made things, or who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He covers all manner of noteworthy events right up to the present day. Mostly written from an American centric point of view, it feels like a book celebrating America’s major achievements in computing. Whilst they have had a major part to play, they have not had the stage entirely to themselves; there is a brief sojourn to Finland about Linux and CERN with Berners-Lee there is very little mention of other European.

There are some flaws though. He doesn’t mention the dark net or any of the other less salubrious activities that happen online either; ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. There is very little mention of mobile technology either. It was a book worth reading though, as he shows that some of the best innovations have come from unlikely collaborations, those that don’t follow the herd and those whose quirky personalities and way of seeing the world bring forth products that we never knew we needed.
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Reading Progress

October 1, 2014 – Shelved
October 1, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
July 1, 2015 – Started Reading
July 1, 2015 –
page 83
September 28, 2015 –
page 206
September 29, 2015 –
page 337
September 29, 2015 –
page 337
September 30, 2015 –
page 428
September 30, 2015 – Shelved as: books-read-2015
September 30, 2015 – Finished Reading

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