Digital Revolution

The cover of this book about the Digital Revolution features cameo portraits of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and two others who are unlikely to be recognized by contemporary readers — and that’s a fairly good clue to the contents of this masterful, comprehensive history of the Digital Revolution.

The woman whose portrait appears at the top of the cover is Lady Lovelace, nee Ada Byron, daughter of the poet. Her story, which is both jaw-dropping and historically consequential, bookends the tale. Isaacson spotlights as the starting-point of the story her prescient writing nearly two centuries ago about the potential of machines to augment human intelligence — and a hint that women have, indeed, made huge if unheralded contributions to the serial innovations that have led to the Digital Revolution we celebrate today. The fourth cameo portrait is that of Alan Turing, an English math prodigy whose writing in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s about the potential of computers picked up where Lovelace left off.

Walter Isaacson is best known to today’s readers as the author of Steve Jobs, a brilliant, best-selling biography, as well as his previous lives of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. However, only with The Innovators has he fully indulged his inner geek. Yes, it turns out that the much-honored and supremely influential president and CEO of the Aspen Institute was, as a boy, a basement tinkerer who was fascinated by technology.

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson (2014) 561 pages ★★★★★

The Innovators brings into vivid relief the little-known engineers, inventors, government bureaucrats, and mathematicians whose collective efforts over the decades has brought about the connected world we live in today. Isaacson gives due (not to say overdue) recognition to such seminal figures as Howard Aiken, John Vincent Atanasoff, Grace Hopper, Jean Jennings, John Mauchly, Presper Eckert, Jack Kilby, J.C.R. Licklider, Bob Taylor, Doug Engelbart, Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, and many others. A few of the key individuals became exceedingly well know, Gates and Jobs most prominent among them; others, publicly recognized but not famous, such as Marc Andreesen, Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove.

Beginning in earnest in the 1930s, the Digital Revolution set out on the trail of machines that could think. In the 1960s, a later generation began to build the tools that could connect those machines. The two tracks ran on parallel lines until the heyday of the personal computer in the 1980s, when they began to converge. At every step along the way, Isaacson skillfully tells the story of the often extraordinary men and women who were part of this saga. Where an explanation of the technology involved seems necessary, he explains in simple, approachable language. But the focus is on the people. And isn’t that the way it should be? The Innovators is, in the final analysis, an indispensable book about the Digital Revolution.

For further reading

This is one of the books I’ve included in my posts, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us and 10 best books about innovation.

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