Long before the advent of the computer and internet as we know it now, long before Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were beatified as idols of computing and Apple and Microsoft became household names, scores of scientists and engineers had been busy decoding the principles of science, seeking to understand the ways of the machines. Almost a century of discoveries, innovations and generating and executing ideas that helped create the “digital age” is what biographer Walter Isaacson has explored with great zeal and attention in ‘The Innovators.’
But here there are no individual heroes, brilliant thinkers and visionaries who stood above the rest. For Isaacson places teamwork as central to innovation. Elaborating how creativity is a collaborative process, he writes, “The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding ideas handed down from previous generations.” The best innovators are those who understood this trajectory of technological change and all of Isaacson’s characters, be it engineers, scientists, hackers and entrepreneurs, took the baton from other innovators.
When a dream was envisaged by Charles Babbage, his ideas were borrowed and galvanised by Harvard Aiken for his Harvard Mark I. To understand how the first transistor came about is to learn of the collaborative efforts of Walter Brattain and John Bardeen. Steve Jobs built on the work of Alan Kay, who was in turn inspired by Doug Engelbart, who built on JCR Licklider and Vannevar Bush. Yes, this book isn’t a book of lone geniuses and Isaacson, ever so powerfully attests to the romance of collaboration rather than individual effort.
Throughout the book, he singles out the creative genius of the various visionaries and through their stories weaves a wonderful tapestry of human-human and human-machine symbiosis, how each in their own way contributed their share to create a world where new technologies thrive.
The book begins and ends with the story of Ada Lovelace, celebrated as a feminist icon and a computer pioneer, who had a propensity for the marriage of the poetic realm with math. Assisting Babbage on his ‘Analytical Engine,’ she dreamed of a world where “machines would become partners in human imagination.” The saga of the digital age that is ‘The Innovators’ — cataloguing how the digital universe evolved, how technology progressed from transistors and microchips to personal computers, video games, internet, et al — has amusingly reinforced this idea. Innovation after all happens when you understand the relationship between humanity and technology.
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