Who Made the Machines That Remade the World?

Walter Isaacson's The Innovators explores the history of the digital age as told through the intertwined lives of the men and women who created it.

Head-and-shoulders portraits of four individuals decorate the cover of The Innovators, Walter Isaacson’s new book on the men and women who set the digital age in motion. Even technology-averse browsers are likely to recognize two of them: Steve Jobs, wearing his trademark black turtleneck and messianic intensity, and Bill Gates, delivering a close-mouthed smile that makes him look simultaneously affable and awkward.

Only historians and hardcore computer geeks are likely to recognize the elegantly gowned woman above Jobs as Ada, Countess of Lovelace, or the intense young man below Gates as Alan Turing. The target audience for the The Innovators lies somewhere between the two groups, among those fascinated by the digital age but unaware of its history.

The Innovators is, as the title and cover illustration suggest, less about things or events than it is about people. Isaacson has a formidable track record as a biographer – of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and (in 2011) Steve Jobs – and each chapter of the book is a set of intertwined mini-biographies introducing the individuals responsible for a particular breakthrough. The titles of the chapters suggest the magnitude of the breakthroughs, ranging from “The Computer” and “Programming” to “Video Games” and “The Web”.

Inventors of the Transistor: L to R John Bardeen, William Shockley
(seated), Walter Brattain. Photo from History-Computer.com

Chapter 4, “The Transistor”, is typical of Isaacson’s approach. It begins just after World War II, when Walter Brattain, John Bardeen, and William Shockley invent the titular device – a smaller, more efficient, and more durable substitute for the vacuum tubes that made up the guts of wartime computers – at Bell Labs in New Jersey. It then follows Shockley as he leaves Bell to form his own company, Shockley Semiconductor, and hires brilliant young engineers like Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore to staff it. The climax of the chapter comes when Noyce, Moore, and six others – collectively dubbed “the traitorous eight” – revolt against Shockley’s ham-fisted, self-aggrandizing management style and join forces with an innovative young venture capitalist to form a new company: Fairchild Semiconductor.

Isaacson’s fluid writing style and eye for revealing anecdotes brings Brattain, Bardeen, and Shockley vividly to life, while giving enough definition to Noyce and Moore that – when they take center stage in the next chapter, “The Microchip” – the reader already feels connected to them. Chapter 4 is more, however, than just the sum of its biographies. It also offers a brief sketch of why transistors were a watershed in the history of computing, an explanation of how Bell Labs’ attitude toward patents and licensing fostered innovation, a nod toward Shockley’s role in establishing Silicon Valley, and a shout-out to the first consumer byproduct of the transistor: a radio small enough to carry in a pocket or purse.

The transistor radio takes up only two of the (nearly) 500 pages of text in The Innovators, but in the space of those two pages, Isaacson turns what could have been an amusing aside into a vehicle for making a serious point. Marketed as a critical tool for listening to official broadcasts in the event of natural disaster or nuclear attack, it quickly became “an object of consumer desire and teenage obsession.” By turning the radio from a living-room appliance into a fashion accessory, it “became the first major example of a defining theme of the digital age: technology making devices personal” (p. 151). This incisive, unexpected insight – the transistor radio as the spiritual as well as technological ancestor of the iPod – might have warranted an entire section in another book, but Isaacson (focused on larger issues) presents it almost as an aside, crisply tossed off on the way to something else.

Multiplied across a dozen chapters, this level of narrative and analytical richness produces an endlessly informative, deeply rewarding book. William Shockley – whom most of us, on our good days, might remember as “one of the guys who invented the transistor” – emerges as a fully rounded individual whose brilliant intellect, deep character flaws, and towering ambition give his rise and fall a nearly Shakespearean quality.

Grace Hopper: pioneering computer programmer and developer
of the programming language COBOL. Photo from
The National WWII Museum, New Orleans

Gordon Moore ceases to be just the name attached to Moore’s Law (“The processing power of a microchip doubles about every two years”) and emerges as a founding figure not just in the microchip industry, but in the fluid, anti-hierarchical work culture of Silicon Valley. Grace Hopper – who wrote the first computer compiler and developed one of the first general-purpose computer languages – is given a well-deserved star turn, representing the scores of now-forgotten women who programmed the giant mainframes of the ’40s and ’50s.

Another 50 names could easily be added to the half-dozen mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, and Isaacson weaves their lives and careers into a fine introduction to the history of the digital age. Despite the large cast of characters and the 80-year span of the narrative, however, the book never feels bogged down in technical, historical, or biographical detail. Isaacson, in every chapter, leaves out vast swaths of significant material — enough for several books. However, as if in oblique acknowledgement that he’s doing so, he cites (sometimes explicitly, other times in the 30 pages of detailed endnotes) the books that have been crafted from that material. Interested, above all, in the forest, he’s content to leave the trees to others.

Isaacson surveys the forest with a larger goal in mind: exploring how technological innovation occurs. We are accustomed, he argues in the book’s brief introduction, to thinking of it as a sudden flash of insight – a light bulb over the head of a lone researcher – but this is a 19th century view, outmoded well before the 20th century gave way to the 21st. Innovation in the digital age, he contends, is dynamic, collaborative, and messy. It’s more likely to emerge from small, nimble groups whose members have varied backgrounds and diverse strengths than from rigidly hierarchical organizations or the workshops of lone geniuses. It’s also more likely to flourish in organizations with the resources to sustain it, the vision to recognize it, and the market savvy to exploit it. Over 500 pages The Innovators is a meticulously constructed case for that view, one fascinating story at a time.

Apple’s Lisa [L], introduced in 1983, failed to impress buyers, but it pioneered innovations used in the Macintosh the following year.
Photo from Mac History.net

Readers who subscribe to the idea the digital innovations of the late 20th century are, at their core, frivolities – unworthy of standing alongside the automobile, the airplane, or the electric light – will conclude that this book is too much about too little. Readers familiar with the in-depth histories of Steven Levy, Paul Ceruzzi, and Martin Campbell-Kelly will conclude that it’s history-of-technology lite. Both groups will be right, but both will be missing the point. The Innovators was not written for them, but for readers who, finding themselves immersed in a world made by computers, want an overview of how (and by whom) the computers were made. Isaacson has given those readers the book they have been waiting for.

RATING 9 / 10