The Leadership that Guided the Digital Age
After his phenomenally successful biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson's new book, The Innovators, stays in the technology field, but this time with a group biography of the wide variety of people who created the digital age. Through its rich details and Isaacson's fine storytelling, The Innovators reads more like a sprawling epic novel than a treatise on technological founders. The first character he introduces is a surprising one: the daughter of the 19th century Romantic poet, Lord Byron.
Lady Ada Meets Charles Babbage
For many people, the age of computing begins with Charles Babbage, the British aristocrat who conceived and built mechanical devices to help people calculate and do other tasks mechanically — thus lightening the thinking load of man. But Babbage needed money, and lots of it, to pay for his "Difference Engine" and especially his more sophisticated "Analytical Engine." Enter Ada, Countess of Lovelace, Byron's only legitimate child and an adept mathematician. As Babbage's collaborator and publicist, one of her tasks was to translate a French description of the machine for the scientific periodical Scientific Memoirs. Knowing more than the original French author about the machine, Ada decided to write some "Notes from the translator." These "Notes" would earn her place as one of the earliest founders of the digital age because — extrapolating far beyond the mechanical devices of her boss — they conceptualize, for the first time, the idea of a computer: a machine that could, in Isaacson's words, "store, manipulate, process and act upon anything that could be expressed in symbols: words and logic and music and anything else we might use symbols to con-vey…. This insight would become the core concept of the digital age: any piece of content, data, or information music, text, pictures, numbers, symbols, sounds, video could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines." The Notes also included, in step-by-step detail, how what we now call a computer program or algorithm would work.
Collaboration and Leadership
Moving through the years, from the 19th century to the 20th and the 21st, Isaacson carefully lays out the history of the two strands of the digital age — computing and . networking — telling the stories of the famous and not-so-famous who piece-by-puzzle-piece would construct the world we live in. Isaacson emphasizes that such a world was not created by lone inventors who single-handedly pushed the technology forward in leaps. Instead, technology advanced through a quiet insight here, a new system there, which were then connected to another insight or system or technology to finally create the breakthrough. Occasionally, one person would indeed give the technology a major push. Tim Berners-Lee correctly deserves full credit as the man who almost single-handedly conceived the World Wide Web. However, in most cases, The Innovators is a story of intense and sometimes complicated collaborations — symbiotic collaborations from which innovation could emerge. Leadership is an important component of the process. Isaacson details the great and not-so-great leadership that guided the history of technological progress. For example, Gordon Shockley, who led the team that invented the transistor, never succeeded as a businessperson; tired of Shockley's ham-fisted leadership, the team February 2015 started their own company, sponsored by the rich inventor and playboy Sherman Fairchild. The compelling stories will keep you turning the pages of The Innovators.
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