Jim'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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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2non-fiction, 1audio, historical, 1ebook

Who invented the 'computer'? Many of the early calculating machines were quite specific in the type of calculations they could perform. It was a term once applied to a bunch of (mostly) women math majors using mechanical adding machines to figure out parts of equations during WWII. Mechanical 'computers' (The name wasn't applied to the devices until either late in or after WWII.) were a number of independent mechanical devices including the abacus & Babbage's device in the early 1800s. Babbage's 'computer' was called a 'difference engine' since it solved differential equations, but there were other, more specific types of calculating machines throughout history.

Due to the mechanical parts, most were slow & many never really worked well. In the late 19th & early 20th centuries, telephone relay switches were used since they were cheap. Then vacuum tubes were used since they were faster, but expensive & hot. Much of the early 'programming' was done by physically plugging wires into different ports as well as using everything from punched cards (based on automated looms) to paper tape & even film reels.

ENIAC was the first general computer (announced in 1946) but it took such a long time to change from one sort of calculation to another that its speed advantage in calculating was lost. It was considered 'all electrical', but many of the systems weren't. It originally had no memory, but later used a tube filled with mercury with a quartz nozzle that could store waves for a few seconds.

Isaacson makes it quite clear that it is in large part the times that inspires inventions. The supporting materials & thoughts are all there & people put them together. Rarely, if ever, is there one individual who has a Eureka! moment. Generally it is teams with many disciplines who share ideas. He spends some time describing Bell Labs, the model for Apple & Google offices today. Well funded, relaxed discipline, with a mandate to invent. Theorists, engineers, chemists, mechanics & manufacturing facilities working together. He shows how war, politics, universities, & private industry all have an edge over the lone garage inventor.

Coming up with an idea whose time has come is cool, but the idea isn't doodly-squat without the funding to patent, market, manufacture, & distribute. Babbage was the perfect example lone inventor who never got his work into public production. His work languished for a century before being rediscovered & used somewhat. IOW, he is the example of what not to do - work in a vacuum. His work was also too early, too much of the needed supporting technologies weren't up to speed yet.

Babbage wasn't quite alone, but he built the hardware & was a man, so he gets the historical credit. Ada Lovelace worked with him & came up with some early programming principles that were finally used & revered a century later by the first programmers, again mostly women, including the iconic Grace Hopper - inventor of the 'bug' among other things such as COBOL. Women were amazingly overlooked in the history books, but they proved that software was as important as hardware. Luckily for them the men in charge didn't realize that, so they were given that unimportant scut work & they shined, even if they were forgotten for a time.

Isaacson does a great job of showing how teams worked together & the problems that arose from separate, but similar discoveries. The patent process is a nightmare, often taking decades to wend through the courts before being decided, reversed, & possibly never really settled. Part of this was the new nature of the inventions. (In 2011(?) both Apple & Google spent more on defending patents than on research for the first time.) Few could understand the inventions, much less the ramifications of new tech such as the transistor or the IC. The fight between Texas Instruments (TI) & Fairchild over the latter is a great case in point. They came up with it independently, within a few months of each other, working on similar problems from different directions, & each managed to solve the others issue better than their own.

Innovation happens in stages. In the case of the transistor, first there was the invention, led by Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain. Next came the production, led by engineers such as Teal. Finally, and equally important, there were the entrepreneurs who figured out how to conjure up new markets. Teal’s plucky boss Pat Haggerty was a colorful case study of this third step in the innovation process....

Haggerty was a cofounder of Texas Instruments in the 1950's who saw transistors & made a new product that consumers hadn't had before or even realized they needed. In 1954, he sold the Regency TR-1, the first portable radio. The radio came out in 4 colors & was marketed to the public in part to keep up on the news in case of atom bomb attacks by the Russians, but it really made a hit among the younger crowd who could listen to that new-fangled music (rock & roll) their parents wouldn't let them play on the big home tube sets made by RCA - who turned down an offer to take part in this new radio. 15 years later, he did it again with IC's when he told his guys to make a portable calculator. (Haggerty was probably Steve Jobs' inspiration.)

While there weren't lone inventors, there were certainly giants in the field & Isaacson does a great job of bringing them to life. Many were outliers of society. Ada Lovelace wasn't as bad as her father, Lord Byron, but she certainly had her quirks. Shockley was brilliant, but he craved the lime light too much & became a racist paranoid which ultimately ruined him. Turing was gay, a crime in his society, & wound up committing suicide. What a waste!

In the Video Game chapter, Isaacson finally gets around to mentioning the MIT railroad club & even references Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution which explores this aspect in even more depth. Highly recommended.

The age &duration of the visions common in the computer industry are pretty amazing. In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote an article in the Atlantic titled “As We May Think".
“Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library… A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."
...Bush imagined that the device would have a “direct entry” mechanism, such as a keyboard, so you could put information and your records into its memory. He even predicted hypertext links, file sharing, and ways to collaborate on projects. “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified,” he wrote, anticipating Wikipedia by a half century.

Douglas Engelbart read & was thrilled by this 2 decades later & helped bring it fruition.

I was really impressed by the way he handled the Altair, the first personal computer in the early 70s. I've read about it before & never understood why it was such a hit. Software finally is coming into its own as hardware is catching up. Which brings us to Bill Gates & Steve Jobs - the change from sharing ideas to monetizing them. Gates’ savvy in changing software from an afterthought into the driving force, the prime profit maker, is truly incredible. Jobs’ focus on usability & simplicity is, too. Isaacson really brings them to life with all their strengths & warts.

On the downside, Isaacson didn't get into business networks & security at all, a gross oversight. Unix dominated networks at first & Novell had a huge presence in the late 80s, but a user had no rights on either network unless specifically granted by knowledgeable techs & businesses paid dearly for them & their support. Neither had a good desktop, if they had one at all. IBM's OS/2 was far better than Win 3.1, but IBM didn't push it nor scale their servers for small businesses. Apple ignored small business & never attracted application software due to their proprietary architecture. Microsoft (MS) sold an easy to use desktop interface that anyone could network & write apps for. Any PC could act as a server & it didn't take much knowledge to set up, so most consumers & small businesses went to Windows. Security was an afterthought until the late 90s, after the WWW connected them all. We've played hell trying to implement decent security ever since, but applications kept us locked in to this OS for all its faults. Still, Microsoft now has over 90% of the desktops compared to a mere 5% by Apple & Linux has even less.

He gets into the distinction between AI & computer augmentation several times, but really concentrates on it in the last chapter. He has a point that it's been just around the corner for quite some time, but I'm not as sanguine as he is that it isn't now. Great overviews of the WWW, blogs, & Wikis. This is also a great summation of the book & really tied all his themes together. He shows the combinations of people, funding, & models that worked for innovation & what didn't.

Excellent job, well read, & highly recommended. If you listen to the audio book, I highly recommend getting a text copy as well. There are some good pictures & plenty of areas that deserve some study.

Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 Ada, Countess of Lovelace
CHAPTER 2 The Computer
CHAPTER 3 Programming
CHAPTER 4 The Transistor
CHAPTER 5 The Microchip
CHAPTER 6 Video Games
CHAPTER 7 The Internet
CHAPTER 8 The Personal Computer
CHAPTER 9 Software
CHAPTER 10 Online
CHAPTER 11 The Web
CHAPTER 12 Ada Forever
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Reading Progress

July 6, 2015 – Shelved
July 6, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
July 6, 2015 – Shelved as: 2non-fiction
February 25, 2016 – Shelved as: 1audio
March 26, 2016 – Started Reading
March 26, 2016 – Shelved as: historical
April 1, 2016 – Shelved as: 1ebook
April 1, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Joy H. Jim, I'm going to try to get the audio version of this book for Eddie. I'm sure he would like it. Thanks for telling us about it.

message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim You're welcome. I think he'll like it, Joy.

Michael Wonderful review. He sure packs a lot of history in and makes you realize how many talented creative people played important roles. Sad for them to be so forgotten and cool for him to put them in the picture. It was great to see the steps behind computer development and the acceleration and convergence. The history of innovation is going on around us and it's hard to get a picture of where it goes from here. The smart phone/tablets are computers and headed for a billion in use and voice control can only get better. Finally the Microsoft monopoly is gone. The Tricorder competition is real. Will quantum computing defeat the end of Moore's Law? Exciting times we live in.

message 4: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Thanks! I haven't noticed Microsoft's monopoly being gone. They still have over 90% of the desktop market. Unfortunately, too many business apps won't run on anything else.

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