Walter Isaacson is one of our greatest biographers. He has written three superb portraits of men who in large measure defined their age—Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. Isaacson has both the empathy and knowledge to make subjects as varied as a universal sage, a scientific genius, and an entrepreneurial visionary come to life. He has now written The Innovators, a group sketch of people who have created our world of ubiquitous computation.
It is a finely etched and exciting picture. We learn that Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, was the first to understand that computational machines could do any logical operation with the right instructions: she is the grandmother of software. And William Shockley was so paranoid that, even after winning the Nobel prize, he obsessed over who on the Nobel committee might have tried to prevent him from getting it. Isaacson also skillfully weaves important themes through the book, such as the ability of many innovators to do, in the words of the Countess Lovelace, “poetic science,” combining aesthetic sensibility with analytic acumen to create new products.
Unfortunately, in his explanations of what drives progress in technology and innovation, Isaacson slights the role of markets and of America.