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The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution Hardcover – October 7, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2014: Many books have been written about Silicon Valley and the collection of geniuses, eccentrics, and mavericks who launched the “Digital Revolution”; Robert X. Cringely's Accidental Empires and Michael A. Hiltzik's Dealers of Lightning are just two excellent accounts of the unprecedented explosion of tech entrepreneurs and their game-changing success. But Walter Isaacson goes them one better: The Innovators, his follow-up to the massive (in both sales and size) Steve Jobs, is probably the widest-ranging and most comprehensive narrative of them all. Don't let the scope or page-count deter you: while Isaacson builds the story from the 19th century--innovator by innovator, just as the players themselves stood atop the achievements of their predecessors--his discipline and era-based structure allows readers to dip in and out of digital history, from Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, to Alan Turing and the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, to Tim Berners-Lee and the birth of the World Wide Web (with contextual nods to influential counterculture weirdos along the way). Isaacson's presentation is both brisk and illuminating; while it doesn't supersede previous histories, The Innovators might be the definitive overview, and it's certainly one hell of a read. --Jon Foro
“[A] sweeping and surprisingly tenderhearted history of the digital age . . . absorbing and valuable, and Isaacson’s outsize narrative talents are on full display. Few authors are more adept at translating technical jargon into graceful prose, or at illustrating how hubris and greed can cause geniuses to lose their way. . . . The book evinces a genuine affection for its subjects that makes it tough to resist . . . his book is thus most memorable not for its intricate accounts of astounding breakthroughs and the business dramas that followed, but rather for the quieter moments in which we realize that most primal drive for innovators is a need to feel childlike joy.” (New York Times Book Review)
“The Innovators . . . is riveting, propulsive and at times deeply moving. . . . One of Isaacson’s jealousy-provoking gifts is his ability to translate complicated science into English—those who have read his biographies of Einstein and Steve Jobs understand that Isaacson is a kind of walking Rosetta Stone of physics and computer programming. . . . The Innovators is one of the most organically optimistic books I think I've ever read. It is a stirring reminder of what Americans are capable of doing when they think big, risk failure, and work together.”
(Jeffrey Goldberg The Atlantic)
“A sprawling companion to his best-selling Steve Jobs . . . this kaleidoscopic narrative serves to explain the stepwise development of 10 core innovations of the digital age — from mathematical logic to transistors, video games and the Web — as well as to illustrate the exemplary traits of their makers. . . . Isaacson unequivocally demonstrates the power of collaborative labor and the interplay between companies and their broader ecosystems. . . . The Innovators is the most accessible and comprehensive history of its kind. (The Washington Post)
“Walter Isaacson has written an inspiring book about genius, this time explaining how creativity and success come from collaboration. The Innovators is a fascinating history of the digital revolution, including the critical but often forgotten role women played from the beginning. It offers truly valuable lessons in how to work together to achieve great results.” (Sheryl Sandberg)
“Isaacson provides a sweeping and scintillating narrative of the inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs who have given the world computers and the Internet. . . . a near-perfect marriage of author and subject . . . an informative and accessible account of the translation of computers, programming, transistors, micro-processors, the Internet, software, PCs, the World Wide Web and search engines from idea into reality. . . . [a] masterful book.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“A panoramic history of technological revolution . . . a sweeping, thrilling tale. . . . Throughout his action-packed story, Isaacson . . . offers vivid portraits—many based on firsthand interviews—[and] weaves prodigious research and deftly crafted anecdotes into a vigorous, gripping narrative about the visionaries whose imaginations and zeal continue to transform our lives.” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)
“A remarkable overview of the history of computers from the man who brought us biographies of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Henry Kissinger . . . Isaacson manages to bring together the entire universe of computing, from the first digitized loom to the web, presented in a very accessible manner that often reads like a thriller.” (Booklist (starred review))
“Anyone who uses a computer in any of its contemporary shapes or who has an interest in modern history will enjoy this book.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“The history of the computer as told through this fascinating book is not the story of great leaps forward but rather one of halting progress. Journalist and Aspen Institute CEO Isaacson (Steve Jobs) presents an episodic survey of advances in computing and the people who made them, from 19th-century digital prophet Ada Lovelace to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. . . . Isaacson’s absorbing study shows that technological progress is a team sport, and that there’s no I in computer.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Isaacson succeeds in telling an accessible tale tailored to a general interest audience. He avoids the overhyped quicksand that swallows many technology writers as they miscast tiny incremental advances as ‘revolutionary.’ Instead Isaacson focuses on the evolutionary nature of progress. The Innovators succeeds in large part because Isaacson repeatedly shows how these visionaries, through design or dumb luck, were able to build and improve on the accomplishments of previous generations.” (Miami Herald)
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The bad news: this book will serve as the definitive history of computing through the first decade of the 21st century. It is at best technically wrong, misses some of the key threads in computing history and starts with a premise (that innovation comes from collaboration) and attempts to write history to fit.
The difference between and a reporter and a historian is that one does a superficial run-through of a rolodex of contacts and the other tries to find the truth. Unfortunately Isaacson's background as reporter for Time and CNN makes this "history" feel like he was comfortable going through his Rolodex of "Silicon Valley" sources connecting interviews, and calling it history.
I'm sure Isaacson would claim, "more details get in the way of a good story," however that is exactly the difference between a throwaway story on CNN and a well written history. The same epic sweep could have embraced and acknowledged the other threads that Isaacson discarded. The gold standard for a technical history is Richard Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."
(Other reviewers have pointed out pointed several critical missing parts of computing history. I'll add one more. While perpetuating the "Intel invented the microprocessor" story makes great business press copy it's simply wrong. Intel commercialized something they knew someone else had already done. Lee Boysel at Four Phase invented the first microprocessor. If Isaacson had done his homework he would have found out that Bob Noyce was on the Four Phase board, knew about the chip and encouraged Intel to commercialize the concept.)
Finally, one of the "facts" in this book that differentiate reporting from history is the garbled bio of Donald Davies, one of the key inventors of Packet Switching. Davies is described as "during the war he worked at Birmingham University creating alloys for nuclear weapons tubes..." I started laughing when I read that sentence. It's clear Isaacson had no idea what Davies did in WWII. He obviously found a description of Davies' war work, didn't understand it and re-edited it into something accidently amusing - and revealing. What Davies had actually done during the war is worked on the British nuclear weapons program - codenamed "TubeAlloys".
Understanding the distinction is the difference between a reporter and a historian.
A full review of this latest Isaacson book would require a book of its own. So I’ll zero in only on the Altair 8800 story. While the Altair’s Intel 8800 microprocessor was developed in Silicon Valley, Isaacson begins his account of the Altair by noting that the first commercially successful hobby computer was developed far away in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Altair was designed by Ed Roberts, who headed MITS, Inc. Isaacson captures only a hint of Ed’s personality during those heady days, and he emphasizes Ed’s hobbyist side more than his degree in electrical engineering. Ed was a first class designer of both analog and digital circuits, an ability most notably shared by Steve Wozniak.
Elsewhere in this tome Isaacson adds flavor and spice to the origins of the PC era with some captivating interviews with some of the key players. Unfortunately, Ed passed away in 2010 (Bill Gates visited him in the hospital), and was not around to be interviewed. Dave Bunnel and other MITS veterans could have added some great Ed stories and corrected a few flaws. For example, the Altair was not developed in The Enchanted Sandwich Shop, which I rented for $100 per month so we could move MITS from Ed’s garage to prepare the Opticom kits we sold through Popular Electronics. That was in 1970, long before the Altair. The Altair was named by Popular Electronics staffers Alexander Burawa and John McVeigh, not by Les Solomon’s daughter.
These errors are trivial (one of Ed's favorite words) in light of this book's vast reach and they don’t take away from the significance of this book, which could be the primary text for a university course on the history of modern computing. But since Ed’s Altair set the stage for much of the industry that followed, it would be good to have a flawless and somewhat more detailed account of the Altair’s origin. A number of other histories of the PC have similar errors. While a revised and corrected second edition would be best, perhaps the paperback version of Isaacson’s book can includes an epilogue with at least some mention of the missing computers noted here by other reviewers and more about Ed, MITS and the Altair story.
An ideal platform for an epilogue is the Startup Gallery of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. Startup, which was conceived and largely financed by Paul Allen, presents the history of modern computing with many rare artifacts from Allen’s personal collection. The centerpiece is devoted to the development of the Altair, complete with video interviews with Ed Roberts and the other key players. A nearby multimedia presentation is must watching.
2015 will be the Altair’s 40th anniversary. If Isaacson can visit Startup and provide advance notice of his arrival, perhaps some of us MITS veterans can meet him there and give him a tour.
Anyone interested in the growth of information theory and technology is likely to find this well worth the read.
In my view there is only one unjustifiable absence from the list of innovators: Ken Thompson and his chess playing computer Belle. Ken had the insight that programming a computer to play chess should not try to imitate the way humans play, but instead take advantage of the characteristics of the machine. Belle became soon the world champion in computer chess and both Deep Blue and Watson are based on the same principles as Belle. Still I would not downgrade my rating for just one flaw.
The last chapter of the book, "Ada Forever," presents the best critique of Artificial Intelligence I have ever read and that by itself is worth the price of the book.