When we think about technology and innovation, the names that come to mind immediately are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs—maybe Steve Wozniak or Paul Allen for the more hard-core geeks among us.
But in this fascinating look at the digital revolution, Walter Isaacson reveals just how many brilliant minds it took to bring us our current life of iPads and Facebook. As in his seminal biographies of Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson deftly profiles those throughout history who could marry art and science to advance technology.
The Innovators starts not in 1980s Seattle or in Silicon Valley. It starts in 1830s England with Ada Byron, the daughter of Lord Byron. More commonly known as Ada, Countess of Lovelace, Isaacson dubs this member of the nobility “an iconic figure in the history of computing,” who with her colleagues envisioned a machine that could “store, manipulate, process and act upon anything that could be expressed in symbols.” She was a woman far, far ahead of her time, one who understood that technology would be nothing without human creativity.
It’s a surprising and beguiling start to a book that mixes biographical sketches of key innovators with in-depth—occasionally dense for the non-techies among us—descriptions of decisive moments in technology. What emerges as most striking is how rarely true eureka moments happened alone: Allen and Gates writing code as Lakeside High School students. Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn creating the beautifully simple early video game Pong. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, creators of Google, whose collaboration Isaacson likens to “two swords sharpening each other.”
The Innovators brings a fresh eye to the depths of human potential, even as he reminds us that technological innovation is an incredibly slow process. As Isaacson writes, “The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.”