The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Overview

Following his blockbuster biography of Steve Jobs, The Innovators is Walter Isaacson’s revealing story of the people who created the computer and the Internet. It is destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution and an indispensable guide to how innovation really happens.

What were the talents that allowed certain inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their visionary ideas into disruptive realities? What led to their creative ...

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The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

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Overview

Following his blockbuster biography of Steve Jobs, The Innovators is Walter Isaacson’s revealing story of the people who created the computer and the Internet. It is destined to be the standard history of the digital revolution and an indispensable guide to how innovation really happens.

What were the talents that allowed certain inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their visionary ideas into disruptive realities? What led to their creative leaps? Why did some succeed and others fail?

In his masterly saga, Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He explores the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page.

This is the story of how their minds worked and what made them so inventive. It’s also a narrative of how their ability to collaborate and master the art of teamwork made them even more creative.

For an era that seeks to foster innovation, creativity, and teamwork, The Innovators shows how they happen.

Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

We all stand—or sit as heirs to the digital revolution, but how many of us know much about its origins? Having already successfully biographed Steve Jobs, Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, the multitalented Walter Isaacson now dexterously takes on the stories of the trailblazers who made the computer and the internet possible. The roster includes inevitable subjects such as Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Jobs, and Bill Gates, but also lesser known contributors including hackers and, surprisingly enough, Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace. Watch for front page reviews and media buzz.

Publishers Weekly
★ 08/04/2014
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. His entertaining biographical sketches cover headline personalities (such as a manic Bill Gates in his salad days) and unsung toilers, like WWII’s pioneering female programmers, and outright failures whose breakthroughs fizzled unnoticed, such as John Atanasoff, who was close to completing a full-scale model computer in 1942 when he was drafted into the Navy. Isaacson examines these figures in lucid, detailed narratives, recreating marathon sessions of lab research, garage tinkering, and all-night coding in which they struggled to translate concepts into working machinery. His account is an antidote to his 2011 Great Man hagiography of Steve Jobs; for every visionary—or three (vicious fights over who invented what are ubiquitous)—there is a dogged engineer; a meticulous project manager; an indulgent funder; an institutional hothouse like ARPA, Stanford, and Bell Labs; and hordes of technical experts. Isaacson’s absorbing study shows that technological progress is a team sport, and that there’s no I in computer. Photos. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Oct.)
Sheryl Sandberg
“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.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-07-22
A panoramic history of technological revolution. "Innovation occurs when ripe seeds fall on fertile ground," Aspen Institute CEO Isaacson (Steve Jobs, 2011, etc.) writes in this sweeping, thrilling tale of three radical innovations that gave rise to the digital age. First was the evolution of the computer, which Isaacson traces from its 19th-century beginnings in Ada Lovelace's "poetical" mathematics and Charles Babbage's dream of an "Analytical Engine" to the creation of silicon chips with circuits printed on them. The second was "the invention of a corporate culture and management style that was the antithesis of the hierarchical organization of East Coast companies." In the rarefied neighborhood dubbed Silicon Valley, new businesses aimed for a cooperative, nonauthoritarian model that nurtured cross-fertilization of ideas. The third innovation was the creation of demand for personal devices: the pocket radio; the calculator, marketing brainchild of Texas Instruments; video games; and finally, the holy grail of inventions: the personal computer. Throughout his action-packed story, Isaacson reiterates one theme: Innovation results from both "creative inventors" and "an evolutionary process that occurs when ideas, concepts, technologies, and engineering methods ripen together." Who invented the microchip? Or the Internet? Mostly, Isaacson writes, these emerged from "a loosely knit cohort of academics and hackers who worked as peers and freely shared their creative ideas….Innovation is not a loner's endeavor." Isaacson offers vivid portraits—many based on firsthand interviews—of mathematicians, scientists, technicians and hackers (a term that used to mean anyone who fooled around with computers), including the elegant, "intellectually intimidating," Hungarian-born John von Neumann; impatient, egotistical William Shockley; Grace Hopper, who joined the Army to pursue a career in mathematics; "laconic yet oddly charming" J.C.R. Licklider, one father of the Internet; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and scores of others. Isaacson weaves prodigious research and deftly crafted anecdotes into a vigorous, gripping narrative about the visionaries whose imaginations and zeal continue to transform our lives.
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2014
Isaacson (Steve Jobs) is a storyteller of the kind he admires among the people who made the bits and pieces that would become computers, wrote programs, invented games, miniaturized the computer, created the Internet, and found ways for ordinary people to access technology and build communities. The author relates the history of the computer by describing these individuals vividly and succinctly. Most were brilliant. Some were shy, others wild. Many had flaws. All are fascinating. At each crucial point in the development of the machine, explains Isaacson, there were usually several people who worked almost as one, even though their personalities differed considerably: an engineer carefully planned the steps, a manager kept people on track, and a pied piper involved others. Ada Lovelace is an example of the visionaries covered in the book; the outlook detailed in her 1843 Notes on Babbage's Analytical Engine took 160 years to be realized, but Lovelace's predictions describe our world today, where humans and machines work together in the arts and sciences to create new knowledge and solve old problems. As well as relevant personalities, Isaacson's work describes organizations and corporations with similar color and clarity. The volume lacks an index, and with many people and concepts mentioned more than once, it would be fascinating to reference these connections (a searchable electronic file would be a logical and helpful addition). VERDICT Anyone who uses a computer in any of its contemporary shapes or who has an interest in modern history will enjoy this book. It should be on the reading lists of book discussion groups and high school and college courses across the curriculum.—Linda Loos Scarth, Cedar Rapids, IA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476708690
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 24,122
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, DC.

Biography

Rhodes Scholar, historian, and bestselling author Walter Isaacson began his distinguished career as a journalist -- first for London's Sunday Times, then for The Times-Picayune/States-Item, published in his hometown of New Orleans. He joined Time magazine in 1978, working his way up from political correspondent to managing editor in a little less than two decades. He served for two years as chairman and CEO of the cable TV news network CNN; then, in 2003, he became president of the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization "dedicated to fostering enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue." In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he was appointed vice-chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and he serves on a number of policy-making boards and councils.

In literary circles, Isaacson is best known as the writer of magisterial biographies, scholarly and meticulously researched, yet immensely entertaining. His first book, however, was a collaborative effort. Co-written with award-winning journalist Evan Thomas, and published in 1986, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made explores the lives of six men who shaped government and public policy in the years following WWII. Examining an era too recent to be called history and too distant to qualify as current affairs, the book received mixed reviews but was universally praised for its ambitious scope and elegant style.

Isaacson's subsequent biographies, all solo efforts (and all critically acclaimed), have chronicled the lives of such disparate figures as Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein. He explains what has drawn him to such widely divergent subjects -- men, who on the surface would appear to have very little in common: "I like writing about people with interesting minds. I try to explore the various aspects of intelligence: common sense, wisdom, creativity, imagination, mental processing power, emotional understanding, and moral values. Which of these traits are the most important? How do they make someone an influential or significant or good person?"

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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 20, 1952
    2. Place of Birth:
      New Orleans, LA
    1. Education:
      Harvard, B.A. in History and Literature, 1974; Oxford (Rhodes Scholar), M.A. in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics

Read an Excerpt

Innovators


  • The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse. Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. There were a lot of fascinating people involved, some ingenious and a few even geniuses. This is the story of these pioneers, hackers, inventors, and entrepreneurs—who they were, how their minds worked, and what made them so creative. It’s also a narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made them even more creative.

The tale of their teamwork is important because we don’t often focus on how central that skill is to innovation. There are thousands of books celebrating people we biographers portray, or mythologize, as lone inventors. I’ve produced a few myself. Search the phrase “the man who invented” on Amazon and you get 1,860 book results. But we have far fewer tales of collaborative creativity, which is actually more important in understanding how today’s technology revolution was fashioned. It can also be more interesting.

We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning. So in this book I set out to report on how innovation actually happens in the real world. How did the most imaginative innovators of our time turn disruptive ideas into realities? I focus on a dozen or so of the most significant breakthroughs of the digital age and the people who made them. What ingredients produced their creative leaps? What skills proved most useful? How did they lead and collaborate? Why did some succeed and others fail?

I also explore the social and cultural forces that provide the atmosphere for innovation. For the birth of the digital age, this included a research ecosystem that was nurtured by government spending and managed by a military-industrial-academic collaboration. Intersecting with that was a loose alliance of community organizers, communal-minded hippies, do-it-yourself hobbyists, and homebrew hackers, most of whom were suspicious of centralized authority.

Histories can be written with a different emphasis on any of these factors. An example is the invention of the Harvard/IBM Mark I, the first big electromechanical computer. One of its programmers, Grace Hopper, wrote a history that focused on its primary creator, Howard Aiken. IBM countered with a history that featured its teams of faceless engineers who contributed the incremental innovations, from counters to card feeders, that went into the machine.

Likewise, what emphasis should be put on great individuals versus on cultural currents has long been a matter of dispute; in the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Carlyle declared that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men,” and Herbert Spencer responded with a theory that emphasized the role of societal forces. Academics and participants often view this balance differently. “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces,” Henry Kissinger told reporters during one of his Middle East shuttle missions in the 1970s. “But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.”1 When it comes to digital-age innovation, as with Middle East peacemaking, a variety of personal and cultural forces all come into play, and in this book I sought to weave them together.

The Internet was originally built to facilitate collaboration. By contrast, personal computers, especially those meant to be used at home, were devised as tools for individual creativity. For more than a decade, beginning in the early 1970s, the development of networks and that of home computers proceeded separately from one another. They finally began coming together in the late 1980s with the advent of modems, online services, and the Web. Just as combining the steam engine with ingenious machinery drove the Industrial Revolution, the combination of the computer and distributed networks led to a digital revolution that allowed anyone to create, disseminate, and access any information anywhere.

Historians of science are sometimes wary about calling periods of great change revolutions, because they prefer to view progress as evolutionary. “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it,” is the wry opening sentence of the Harvard professor Steven Shapin’s book on that period. One method that Shapin used to escape his half-joking contradiction is to note how the key players of the period “vigorously expressed the view” that they were part of a revolution. “Our sense of radical change afoot comes substantially from them.”2

Likewise, most of us today share a sense that the digital advances of the past half century are transforming, perhaps even revolutionizing the way we live. I can recall the excitement that each new breakthrough engendered. My father and uncles were electrical engineers, and like many of the characters in this book I grew up with a basement workshop that had circuit boards to be soldered, radios to be opened, tubes to be tested, and boxes of transistors and resistors to be sorted and deployed. As an electronics geek who loved Heathkits and ham radios (WA5JTP), I can remember when vacuum tubes gave way to transistors. At college I learned programming using punch cards and recall when the agony of batch processing was replaced by the ecstasy of hands-on interaction. In the 1980s I thrilled to the static and screech that modems made when they opened for you the weirdly magical realm of online services and bulletin boards, and in the early 1990s I helped to run a digital division at Time and Time Warner that launched new Web and broadband Internet services. As Wordsworth said of the enthusiasts who were present at the beginning of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

I began work on this book more than a decade ago. It grew out of my fascination with the digital-age advances I had witnessed and also from my biography of Benjamin Franklin, who was an innovator, inventor, publisher, postal service pioneer, and all-around information networker and entrepreneur. I wanted to step away from doing biographies, which tend to emphasize the role of singular individuals, and once again do a book like The Wise Men, which I had coauthored with a colleague about the creative teamwork of six friends who shaped America’s cold war policies. My initial plan was to focus on the teams that invented the Internet. But when I interviewed Bill Gates, he convinced me that the simultaneous emergence of the Internet and the personal computer made for a richer tale. I put this book on hold early in 2009, when I began working on a biography of Steve Jobs. But his story reinforced my interest in how the development of the Internet and computers intertwined, so as soon as I finished that book, I went back to work on this tale of digital-age innovators.

The protocols of the Internet were devised by peer collaboration, and the resulting system seemed to have embedded in its genetic code a propensity to facilitate such collaboration. The power to create and transmit information was fully distributed to each of the nodes, and any attempt to impose controls or a hierarchy could be routed around. Without falling into the teleological fallacy of ascribing intentions or a personality to technology, it’s fair to say that a system of open networks connected to individually controlled computers tended, as the printing press did, to wrest control over the distribution of information from gatekeepers, central authorities, and institutions that employed scriveners and scribes. It became easier for ordinary folks to create and share content.

The collaboration that created the digital age was not just among peers but also between generations. Ideas were handed off from one cohort of innovators to the next. Another theme that emerged from my research was that users repeatedly commandeered digital innovations to create communications and social networking tools. I also became interested in how the quest for artificial intelligence—machines that think on their own—has consistently proved less fruitful than creating ways to forge a partnership or symbiosis between people and machines. In other words, the collaborative creativity that marked the digital age included collaboration between humans and machines.

Finally, I was struck by how the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. They believed that beauty mattered. “I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” Jobs told me when I embarked on his biography. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” The people who were comfortable at this humanities-technology intersection helped to create the human-machine symbiosis that is at the core of this story.

Like many aspects of the digital age, this idea that innovation resides where art and science connect is not new. Leonardo da Vinci was the exemplar of the creativity that flourishes when the humanities and sciences interact. When Einstein was stymied while working out General Relativity, he would pull out his violin and play Mozart until he could reconnect to what he called the harmony of the spheres.

When it comes to computers, there is one other historical figure, not as well known, who embodied the combination of the arts and sciences. Like her famous father, she understood the romance of poetry. Unlike him, she also saw the romance of math and machinery. And that is where our story begins.

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