Yesterday, I finished read Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. I loved it. It is an excellent overview of the history of the digital age, from Ada Lovelace, right up through Google and Wikipedia.
The book took a logical progression through the history of computer hardware and software innovation, which was a great way to see how technology evolves over time, each big discovery informing the next one. Two things in particular stood out about the book.
First, there was a familiar feel to the style in which it was written. It didn’t take long for me to recognize it. The book reads like an Isaac Asimov science history book. There are clear descriptions of technology that make it accessible to the lay person. There are also gripping, inviting biographies of the players involved. These combine to make for a fascinating narrative that reminded me of books like Asimov’s Guide to Science.
Second, in reading the book, I was moved to want to do the kind of innovating things that the people in the book were doing. This often happens to me when reading nonfiction. Reading a book on, say, Richard Feynman, will draw out a desire in me to be a physicist. Reading a book on Winston Churchill draws out similar feelings on being a statesman. The Innovators was no different. Except that I have been living in the technology world since I first played with a computer at the age of 10 or 11 years old. And I’ve been working in that world as my profession for the last 20 years. That profession, like any, can grind on you after a while. But Isaacson’s book did something remarkable. It rekindled my joy in information technology. It made me realize that I am already working in this industry, and unlike the other biographies I’ve read whose subject I envy from afar, I live this one. It’s pretty rare for a book to do that.
The book covered the evolution of Windows and Mac, and also covered the birth of Linux. If it was light on any one area that I would have wanted to read more about, it was the birth and evolution of UNIX. UNIX wasn’t mentioned in the book until the chapter on Linux, in which casual mention was made that Linux was based on UNIX, an operating system developed in 1970. That was about it. But overall, the scope of the book was broad, and fascinating, and I raced through it, enjoying every minute of it.
This was my second Walter Isaacson book. I read Einstein: His Life and Universe back in 2008 and I really enjoyed that one as well. It’s difficult to say which one I enjoyed more, but I’ll give the edge to The Innovators since it helped rekindle my joy and fascination in information technology.
I think he works better as a biographer (c.f. Benjamin Franklin: A Life) better than anything else. But that’s just me
I recently finished reading his book on Steve Jobs and have this one as well as his Benjamin Franklin book on my queue to read or listen to at some point. Will have to add the Einstein book as well.
Jamie, have you not read the Steve Jobs biography? I am surprised. I would have thought that a tech-savvy guy like you would have been all over it when it came out 🙂
No, not yet, I’m afraid. I own it, but when it came out, there was too much other stuff to read, and I’ve only just gotten back into reading technology books. I imagine I’ll get around to it one of these days.