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Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson’s newest is a jolly ride through the inventions, feuds, and breakthroughs of modern technology
Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators begins with Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and one of the few women to appear in this book who isn’t an offstage wife. In the mid-19th century, Lovelace embarked on a study of mathematics to discipline her artist’s mind and attached herself to Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first computer. (Fashioned with big brass wheels, it could compute prime numbers and solve equations.) Inspired by the latest Jacquard looms, Lovelace suggested programming it with punch cards, thus vastly increasing its versatility. She also conceived of it as a device that could process music, patterns, poetry—in other words, much like the one many of us have in our pocket. Ultimately, their passionate, stormy partnership ended, and Babbage’s brass wheels were removed to dusty storehouses and attics, waiting for the world to catch up.

The Innovators is a lightning round of the digital age, presenting invention after invention in mostly bite-size pieces. The stories are familiar, but combined they achieve a satisfying velocity. Isaacson’s central obsession is how to apportion credit for these miraculous helpmates, communications devices, and global networks. He investigates the cultures that incubated them and the tensions between the individual genius and the collaborative process. There’s a full clinical taxonomy of partnerships both pathological and close to perfect. (Bob Taylor on his partner on the proto-Internet, Larry Roberts: “Larry claims that he laid out the network himself, which is totally false. I feel sorry for him.” Roberts on Taylor: “I don’t know what to give him credit for other than hiring me.” A more functional pair: the egalitarian Robert Noyce’s alliance with the “constructive confrontation” of Andy Grove during the early days of Intel.) Isaacson swiftly parses everyone’s contributions, a judge gaveling through a heavy caseload, weighing pure insight vs. technological know-how vs. just showing up. In a way, the book is about the complex lines of force and influence in male friendships, the egging each other on and ranking each other out.