Walter Isaacson's 'The Innovators' Charts the History of Computing and the Internet

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More than a decade ago, Walter Isaacson began working on a book to highlight the history of computers and the Internet, but the project was sidelined in early 2009 when he took on the task of writing Steve Jobs' authorized biography. That book, which debuted just weeks after Jobs' death in October 2011, topped best seller charts and revealed a number of interesting details about Jobs and Apple.

Following the publication of Steve Jobs, Isaacson returned to his earlier project of documenting the history of computing, and that work debuts tomorrow as The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. While Apple and Jobs play relatively minor roles in the book, overall it offers an interesting look at how computers and the Internet developed into what they are today.

Isaacson breaks his book into nearly a dozen different sections, highlighting a number of advancements along the way. It begins with Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage outlining their thoughts on a mechanical "Analytical Engine" in the 1830s and 1840s before jumping ahead nearly 100 years to Vannevar Bush and Alan Turing and their visions for the earliest computers that would follow soon after. Further sections address advances in programming, transistors, microchips, video games, and the early Internet before broaching the topics of the modern personal computer and the World Wide Web.

Throughout the book, Isaacson focuses on the importance of teamwork rather than individual genius in the development of computers, frequently involving contrasting but complementary personalities of visionaries, technical experts, and managers. Popular examples include Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, or Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove at Intel, but the observation extends further as time and time again teams have been responsible for many of the biggest innovations.
Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses. This was true of every era of creative ferment. [...] But to an even greater extent, this has been true of the digital age. As brilliant as the many inventors of the Internet and computer were, they achieved most of their advances through teamwork.
Isaacson also emphasizes the importance of building on previous discoveries, including collaboration both within and between generations of scientists. A number of characters in the book appear at multiple stages, often first as innovators themselves and later helping to foster discoveries by the next generation.

Other observations include the various roles of government, academia, and business in the development of computing and how they frequently came together, particularly in the early days, to lead advancements. Isaacson also uses several cases to argue that innovation works best when different business models compete against each other, particularly in software development as with Apple's integrated systems vying with Microsoft's unbundled model while the free and open-source approach maintained its position in the market.
Each model had its advantages, each had its incentives for creativity, and each had its prophets and disciples. But the approach that worked best was having all three models coexisting, along with various combinations of open and closed, bundled and unbundled, proprietary and free. Windows and Mac, UNIX and Linux, iOS and Android: a variety of approaches competed over the decades, spurring each other on -- and providing a check against any one model becoming so dominant that it stifled innovation.
Packing the entire history of computing into 500 pages leaves some topics feeling brief or left out altogether, but Isaacson's book gives an interesting overview for those who may not be familiar with the technical advances stretching back decades that have given rise to the current state of the art. Focusing more on the people and relationships than the technical details, it offers some insight into how breakthroughs have been made and how some innovators have gained fame and fortune while others slipped into near obscurity.

Article Link: Walter Isaacson's 'The Innovators' Charts the History of Computing and the Internet
 

bbeagle

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Oct 19, 2010
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Well, if Isaacson couldn't get one aspect of the history of computing right, I don't have confidence that he can do all of it...
For your opinion to be valued, more details are needed than just 'Isaacson got everything wrong with Jobs'. Name something specific.
 

bawbac

macrumors 65816
Mar 2, 2012
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Forget about how the technological advancement was created and lets focus on the success of technology manipulation.
 

macintologist

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May 3, 2004
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Does this book give adequate treatment to women and people of color who were early pioneers of computing?
 

slicecom

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Aug 29, 2003
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He should have spent his time making a second edition of the Steve Jobs book instead, considering what an unorganized and repetitive mess it was.
 

aaronvan

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Dec 21, 2011
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I'll probably read this, but really, what more can be said about Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Charles Moore, Steve Jobs, etc. etc.? I suspect this book is just a rehash of a lot of previous material.
 

ProVideo

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Jun 28, 2011
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His Jobs bio seemed rushed and missed a large portion of his life and career. His overuse of certain words also became annoying and distracting. "Cherubic" was one that he used several times that got on my nerves.

It might be an interesting read to see if he does better when a deadline isn't hanging over his head due to someone's imminent death.
 
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Naimfan

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Jan 15, 2003
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I think Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Vail, and pre-divestituture AT&T have done more then anyone else to change the entire world. Unbelievable just how much the telephone has changed everybody's lives.
There. Fixed it.

;)
 

Cougarcat

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Sep 19, 2003
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For your opinion to be valued, more details are needed than just 'Isaacson got everything wrong with Jobs'. Name something specific.
That was discussed and debated ad nauseum here when the book came out, but if you'd like to hear an excellent critique, I recommend listening to John Siracusa's episode of Hypercritical on it.

Does this book give adequate treatment to women and people of color who were early pioneers of computing?
Looks like it: http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/10/06/345799830/the-forgotten-female-programmers-who-created-modern-tech?ft=3&f=1001
 

CalWizrd

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Does this book give adequate treatment to women and people of color who were early pioneers of computing?
Ah, the obligatory politically correct query. Vomit time.

How about just recognizing contributions without questioning gender, race, sexual orientation, country of origin, left-handedness, etc?
 

zoetmb

macrumors regular
Oct 8, 2007
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Does this book give adequate treatment to women and people of color who were early pioneers of computing?
Did you read what's contained in the book? The book begins with Ada Lovelace, who was a woman.

Unfortunately, because of sexism and racism, not that many women and people of color were early pioneers of computing, although the early Mac team included people like Susan Kare, a woman who designed all the early icons.

There's still a dearth of woman and people of color in tech companies. However, whether that's a result of racism and sexism in the industry, by academia or self-choices by women and people of color is open to question.

Go to a high school or even a junior high school and ask who wants to go into IT fields and my bet is that a lower percentage of women and people of color raise their hands. Unfortunately, people start self-discriminating at very young ages or are stereotyped into roles by their parents.
 

Naimfan

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Erm, nope you haven't fixed anything I'm afraid. Attempting to change history are you?
Nope, just think it good to underline how the transistor, computer, internet, etc., don't exist without Bell, Vail, etc., and that the telephone had a larger impact on our lives than the internet has had.
 

apolloa

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Oct 21, 2008
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Time, because it rules EVERYTHING!
Nope, just think it good to underline how the transistor, computer, internet, etc., don't exist without Bell, Vail, etc., and that the telephone had a larger impact on our lives than the internet has had.
I would question that..... you are talking about American companies only there mate, you do realise the internet is an International Network right?

And I would question that the impact of the internet is less then the telephone, IMO it's had a far bigger impact. It's enabled you make a comment on here for one.
 

hspace

macrumors regular
Oct 13, 2011
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Looks like Walter Isaacson can't stop riding the "Steve Jobs gravy train". :rolleyes: How many more Steve Jobs related books does he have planned?

Why can't he let him rest in peace?
 

nick42983

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May 18, 2009
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Does this book give adequate treatment to women and people of color who were early pioneers of computing?
By "adequate" do you mean totally out of proportion to their contributions? Let people's achievements stand for themselves, affirmative action has wreaked enough destruction as it is.
 

Cougarcat

macrumors 604
Sep 19, 2003
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By "adequate" do you mean totally out of proportion to their contributions? Let people's achievements stand for themselves, affirmative action has wreaked enough destruction as it is.
Ah, the obligatory politically correct query. Vomit time.

How about just recognizing contributions without questioning gender, race, sexual orientation, country of origin, left-handedness, etc?
It's a fair question to ask, because they are often the ones left out of such narratives, even if they did important contributions. There are plenty of women who made significant contributions that still nobody knows about.
 
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