Review: The Innovators

The Book

Book: The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Author: Walter Isaacson
Format: Audible

General Comments

I debated between this book and Isaacson's Steve Jobs. I decided to start with this book because it offers the promise of a comprehensive history of the people behind computers and the internet. This book did not disappoint. I have read several books that have dealt with different people in the history of computing, but never one that tried to go from the beginning to now.

10 Takeaways

  1. Isaacson opens the book with the debate of all books on innovation: is innovation the work of the solo genius or the product of great teams. Isaacson says it is both. For the most part he depicts a driving innovator (like Steve Jobs) and a winning team (Apple).
  2. Innovation requires teamwork.
  3. Innovators often have obsessive personalities combined with metaphorical thinking, an obsession to details and the ability to drive a team to yield forth their vision.
  4. Innovation is usually at the intersection of multiple disciplines. For Ada Lovelace it was the intersection of art and math. For Steve Jobs it was the intersection of technology and liberal arts. For Bell Labs it was the long hallways and the intersection of physicist, engineers, field technicians and mathematicians.
  5. It was interesting seeing how Intel shaped the company culture of Silicon Valley companies by creating a nearly flat, results oriented company. Also, they created the view that it was ok to not work at a company for your whole life.
  6. Isaacson shows how different parties played in the innovation of computers and the internet. Bell labs, a government sanctioned monopoly, did a lot of the basic research required for the transistor. Venture capital, helped Intel build the hardware needed to develop smaller computers. The open sharing homebrew and later open source movements developed much of the software. Microsoft commercialized software. Apple married hardware and software. The military needed a nuclear safe network that grew into the internet. The open protocols of HTTP and TCP/IP allowed Netscape to build a web browser.
  7. Generic protocols are important to building interconnected commercial and open companies.
  8. The internet had a lot of competing visions interesting the debate between Gopher and HTTP. Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the Internet, wanted to require two-way links. The lack of two-way links left room for Google to build an amazing search engine.
  9. Often innovations are happing at the same time by multiple teams. For example Fairchild Semiconductor and Texas Instruments developed the microprocessor at pretty much the same time. It became a race to the patent office. There were multiple teams working on the first general purpose computers.
  10. Most technologies have a "killer app" or key use case that spurs wide scale adoption. Gaming was pong. The transistor’s was the portable radio, popular among teens. The internet was email and web browsers. These killer apps are often looked down by the techs that know the most about the technology.


This was a great book that really helped me to fill in the gaps and sequence the jumbled collection of computer and internet history. I enjoyed the juxtapositioning of indiviuals to teams and private, govermentment, commercial, to open contributions.