Review: "The Innovators" by Walter Isaacson

Here at Letterjoy we read a wide assortment of history books in the process of researching new letter topics. From now on we’ll be publishing brief reviews of some of the books we read, to help you surface your new favorite history book.

I recently completed Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators”, and wow, was it good. If ever you wished for a thorough examination of the evolution of computing, this is it. Isaacson traces computing from the writings of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in England, to a basement in Iowa, to modern-day Silicon Valley, identifying not only the key players and innovations that brought the industry to fruition, but the common traits that tied these innovators together.

Isaacson is legendary for his biographies of figures such as Steve Jobs and Leonardo Da Vinci, but in “The Innovators”, Isaacson embraces the power of teams and institutions in bringing innovation to the masses, and makes a case for collaboration, over “secret-project-in-the-basement” individual geniuses.  I was not always convinced of this narrative, but I found Isaacson’s comparison of solo and team innovators working on the same challenge to be illuminating.

I also enjoyed his analysis of the contributions of government, private industry, and non-profit open-source types like Linus Torvalds (of Linux fame). It adds nice color to the modern debate over the role of governments, universities, businesses, and individuals in technology research and development.

Nominally, Isaacson’s book is a history of the computing industry, but it is also a phenomenal way to learn, step-by-step, how computers function, at an electrical and systemic level. By understanding computing at its simplest and earliest stages, it becomes a lot easier to understand the machines of today.

Admittedly, “The Innovators” is not a “can’t-put-it-down” page-turner. It’s good, but the broad approach Isaacson took, focused on patterns over individuals, doesn’t allow him to take advantage of a classic narrative arc. That saidm, it is a really fascinating and well-structured look at the history of computing, for anyone interested in that area of study. I recommend it.

Michael SitverReviews