Friday, July 3, 2015

The Innovators by Walter Issacson

Walter Issacson has written a masterful explanation of the rise of computing.  He covers both the hardware and the software side of things, concentrating on the people who made the advances that those after them built upon.  Some have called this approach a 'serial biography' and that is a good explanation for the writing style.  He begins with the individuals who came up with the theoretical idea of computing; using a machine to automate human tasks and perform calculations more quickly and with more precision than humans bring to jobs.  Some of these early pioneers include Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage.

He then moves to the hardware side of actually building machines that were capable of performing calculations.  Computers went from mechanical relays that had to be reset manually to digital relays or switches to transistors to chips.  Most of these advances were the result of teams of talented individuals with different skillsets in math and engineering.  Early programmers included individuals such as John von Neumann, Grace Hooper and Alan Turing.  They developed strategies such as looping and subroutines that allowed computers to handle intricate tasks in a straightforward manner.

The last third of the book covered material the reader will be more familiar with the rise of the Internet, the World Wide Web, blogs and wikis.  Men such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Tim Berner-Lee, J.C.R. Licklider, Alan Page and yes, even Al Gore are profiled as Issacson explores the Internet we all use each day.

Issacson is a former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine.  His professional skills in taking vast complicated subjects and refocusing them in a manner that is understandable to the average reader is evident in this work.  As an IT professional and teacher, I was familiar with the timelines and individuals, but Issacson brought them to life in a way that makes the material more personal and interesting.  He emphasizes the role that collaboration has played from the start of the field.  Each breakthrough was performed based on the work of those who came before, and often each breakthrough was the result of a team of people rather than a lone wolf laboring away in solitude.  He also emphasized that those who could not make the leap to commercialize their visions were forgotten and their work lost in time.  He talks about the future of computing when a human-machine partnership will become more and more of a reality.  This book is recommended for readers of nonfiction.  It will make the computer revolution both understandable and fun to read about. 

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