Joe Fjelstad's Book Review: The Innovators


Reading time ( words)

I have been involved in the electronics interconnection industry in one way or another since mid 1971. Next year will mark a half century and that fact both shocks and amazes me. The time has passed quickly largely because It has been such a great experience. Over the course of those nearly 50 years, I have met and been able to call friend some of premier contributors to the electronics interconnection industry, many of whom in turn have directly interacted with some of the top tier technological icons of the electronics universe.

It was arguably because most of my experience in electronics was captured in Silicon Valley which has for somewhere around seven decades has been one of the key hubs of electronic innovation, especially semiconductor technology in the world. I had the good fortune to work and grow in the middle of a technical hurricane with advances in electronics (and other) technology happening at a prodigious/mind-numbing pace. At the time, it was nigh onto impossible to fully appreciate, let alone truly comprehend, the rate of change as it happened. Still, through technical journals and local newspapers it was possible to register some of the big changes as major players announced latest development and start-ups formed to try and create the next great thing but keeping it all within the perspective of history was not easy.

That brings me to the real purpose of this commentary and that is a brief review of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. It is for me the best technology history book I have ever read and at the same time one of the most engaging and entertaining. It is a forte of Isaacson to write biographies of great people. I have read his other books on DaVinci, Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein and found them equally brilliant. Isaacson has a number of other titles I have yet to get to in the future. He is a singularly great storyteller.

While most of his previous books traced the lives (or partial lives) of more than five dozen amazingly creative individuals, The Innovators instead traces the life an industry, waltzing through time and space from the 19th century to the present day through the lives and disparate contributions of a cast of creative geniuses. Isaacson has woven together a beautifully crafted tale of computer technology from creative mechanical genius Charles Babbage and is brilliant colleague and arguably first programmer in history, Ada Lovelace (interestingly the daughter of poet Lord Byron) to the modern day icons Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee . In the process Isaacson introduces the reader to many of the unsung heroes and heroines whose efforts over time made possible the world of electronics and instant global communication we enjoy today and secured them a place in the pantheon of the computer and electronics industry’s most creative geniuses

What I particularly enjoyed was the way Isaacson tied together the innovators and their contributions with their personal lives. They were all human but also driven by dreams and vision. They saw not what wasn’t there but what wasn’t there yet. They were both individuals and teams who built upon the foundations others left for them and they advanced the cause. I also much enjoyed the way Isaacson explained the technologies that sequentially made possible the advances, from Babbage’s mechanically switched analytical engine to the vacuum tube, to the transistor to the integrated circuit. Being more of a hardware guy than software aficionado I was most entertained by the progression. Steeped in printed circuit technology, I could clearly sense how Jack Kilby might make the leap from discrete transistor to an integrated circuit. Before he went to Texas Instruments had been working for Centralab In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which made printed circuits. My guess is that his exposure to printed circuits (which were printed inks at the time—and which, interestingly, are making a comeback with today’s additive manufacturing tools—informed his invention. Bob Noyce came up with the same idea independently and the planar process looked even more like a PCB. The refinement of that process has been going on ever since, just as is the case with PCB technology. Part of what inspired them was the so called “tyranny of numbers” which was predicated on the fact that up to that point, discrete interconnections were made by point-to-point wires. It needed to be changed.

The story line continues in the book to the invention and evolution of the computer, mainframe to personal, and programming and ultimately to the invention of the internet (which was in part to assure communications could survive a nuclear with multiple interconnected nodes) and finally to the world wide web which today allows anyone anywhere to access virtually all the knowledge of mankind’s collective history.

This brief review of The Innovators by Walter Isaacson cannot do justice to the value I personally have placed on the book. It is a must read for any technologist who wishes to know and better understand the history and the technologies that made their job possible and perhaps inspire them to build on the foundation the giants who preceded them have left.            

 

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