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Reading List: The Innovators

The computer and the Internet “are among the most important innovations of our era, but few people know who created them,” writes Walter Isaacson, the best-selling biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. In The Innovators, Isaacson succeeds in filling our knowledge gap by crafting a richly detailed history that traces the evolution of these modern tools and pays homage to the people whose names and contributions to computer science are little-known to most of us.

Nearly 150 years before the likes of Jobs took a place in the time line, a captivating collection of brilliant, flawed, eccentric and occasionally delusional characters played enormous roles in the evolution of the computer. In 1843, Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, published notes on an “Analytical Engine,” a 19th-century forebear. In 1937, Alan Turing (later famed for his World War II code-breaking work), published the paper On Computable Numbers, in which he described part of the potential of computers. A year later, William Hewlett and David Packard formed a company in a Palo Alto, Calif., garage.

Along with the history, Isaacson explores the nature of innovation, pointing out that it is usually “a group effort involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources.” Sometimes, he writes, “the difference between geniuses and jerks hinges on whether their ideas turn out to be right.” The Innovators is as much about the essence of creativity and genius as it is about cathode tubes, binary programs, circuit boards, microchips and everything in between.

by Walter Isaacson

October
Simon & Schuster; $35

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