I heard a lot of buzz around this book around the same time that I had several students working on history of science projects and Isaacson was the Jefferson Lecturer for the NEH. With Audible credits to burn, I went for it. Isaacson tells the story of the computer and the internet through the interconnected stories of individuals. His thesis is that no individual can be given credit for innovations such as these. Only through collaboration and building on each other’s successes can we go to great heights. He begins his chain of successes with Ada Lovelace, whose combination of science and poetry gave those who came after her a vision for a computing machine and the way it would interact with humanity. I met new characters such as Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider, and Doug Engelbart. Isaacson places better known contributors, such as Alan Turing, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, into a wider context that takes the popular vision of them as rugged individual geniuses and explains their debts to those before and around them. Many of the figures in Isaacson’s story begin their careers in the basement with their fathers working on circuitry, which led to a focus on hardware over software. Their denigration of the role of software opened a temporary space for women to engage in emerging computer science without receiving much credit for their contributions. In fact, the further Isaacson gets into his story, the less aware he seems to be of the role of a hyper-masculine culture in constructing what became Silicon Valley. Hot tub parties replete with liquor, drugs, and women became the perks of employment that lured talented mathematicians to new companies housed in sometimes questionable digs. Women were perks of employment similar to hot bubbles, not employees. So much for Ada Lovelace’s vision.
Not all contributions led to new advances. Working alone in his parents’ kitchen in Berlin during WWII led Konrad Zuse’s to be largely unnoticed as other innovators moved beyond his discoveries. Zuse’s story fits Isaacson’s story of collaboration for success, such as that which occurred at Bell Labs.
I was intrigued by the first half of The Innovators and only lost steam in the midst of the story of the internet, but it may have been because I had too much time between periods of listening and started to lose track of the various characters. This is not a book for those who struggle with a short attention span, but for those who can give it their attention, the payoff is worth the investment.