The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

1. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

a. 17.5 hours

b. Strongly recommended.

c. How I chose it: I really liked Walter Isaacson’s book about Steve Jobs, I knew little about the Digital Revolution, and this book offers a broad history of the Digital Revolution, from Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace to Google.

d. What I got out of it: There are many interesting anecdotes about how academia, venture capital, and start-ups work. It covers many stories without going into too much detail. I learned more about many interesting characters that I’d heard of, but knew little about, including William Shockley, Arthur Rock, and Douglas Engelbart.

e. More detailed notes here.

Harvard’s physics department wasn’t supportive of Aiken’s work on a “calculating machine” on the grounds that it was too practical and not academic enough. “It should be made quite clear to him that such activity did not increase his chances of promotion to professorship.” It turned out to be an important device in the history of computing. (Chapter 3, 36:00)

“A physicist is one concerned with the truth. An engineer is one concerned with getting the job done,” said Eckert (Chapter 4, 25:30)

Oswald Veblen was advising the military on mathematical projects. There was a meeting discussing whether to fund ENIAC, which Veblen and colonel Leslie Simon attended. Goldstein recalled, “Veblen after listening for a short while to my presentation and teetering on the back legs of his chair, brought the chair down with a crash, arose, and said, ‘Simon, give Goldstein the money.’”(Chapter 4, 29:30)

Penn used to be an epicenter of computer development, but people moved on. But computers were seen as a tool and not an area of study. (Chapter 6, 20:00)

When von Neumann went into the Institute for Advanced Study. But other faculty didn’t like the idea of the Institute supporting work on computing, feeling it was too applied and not theoretical enough. (Chapter 6, 24:00)

When the traitorous eight left Shockley, it was a really unusual thing to do. The normal thing to do was to get hired by one company and stay there for life. (Chapter 7, 1:18:00)

For much of the 20th century, VC and private equity in new companies was primarily done by rich families like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Whitneys, and Warburgs. They then set up companies to do it in the 1940s. (Chapter 8, 33:00)

Arthur Rock was one of the great venture capitalists of early Silicon Valley. “One of his key investment maxims was to bet primarily on the people rather than the idea.” (Chapter 8, 35:00)

The internet was built by a partnership among the military, universities, and corporations. The person most responsible for building this partnership was Vannevar Bush. He was Dean of the MIT school of engineering, a founder of Ratheon, and America’s top military science administrator during WWII. “No American has had greater influence in the growth of science and technology than Vannevar Bush,” former MIT president Jerome B. Wiesner once wrote. (Chapter 10, 0:00)

Taylor pitched ARPAnet (a predecessor to the internet) to his boss Charles Herzfeld. “‘Great idea,’ Herzfeld said. ‘Get it going. How much money do you need?’” Taylor said it would need $1M, and got it. It only took about 20 minutes. Notice the repeat of Goldstein’s story above. Herzfeld later said this story was a bit misleading because Taylor had been working on related problems with Herzfeld. (Chapter 10, 34:30)

There is dispute about the historical justification for making ARPAnet. Some say it was to allow the US to keep up command and control in the event of a nuclear attack on the US. Others say it was to save money and help with academic communication. The government was more concerned about the former, and the people making it were generally more concerned about the latter. (Chapter 11, 21:30)

Stuart Brand had the idea that it would be important to get a photograph of Earth from space. It would, he thought, promote empathy and connectedness. He convinced NASA to make it happen. Chapter (12, 17:00).

Douglas Engelbart looked at all the different “crusades” he could join in order to find the one that seemed most worthy. But he found it really hard to weigh all the relevant probabilities and compare everything. He concluded that his best bet was to develop a way for humans to handle complexity and urgency, so that people would be better at handling such problems in general. So he worked on “the computer mouse, and the development of hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to graphical user interfaces” (Wikipedia). (Chapter 12, 23:30)

Burners-Lee recruited an undergraduate to develop a browser that would work for both UNIX and MS operating systems. It was an enormous tax, but she was expected to do it. And she just did it. (Chapter 17, 22:30)

There was a dispute between Kovitz and Sanger about who deserved the most credit for using a Wiki for the encyclopedia. (Chapter 18, 6:00) There were multiple examples of this in the story, including Shockley and the transistor, the Twitter co-founders, and a bunch more that I’m not remembering.

While Page and Brin were at the Stanford CS program (and perhaps now), the program had a nice mix of theory and practicality. It was happy to incubate startups. Page thinks that the emphasis on practicality—a desire to have theoretical research apply to real problems—helped make the program have some of the best theoretical work. (Chapter 18, 32:30)

When the Perceptron was made in the 1950s, it came along with ridiculous hype. The New Yorker said that the Perceptron was capable of original thought and rivaled the human brain. We often get stories like this—often using almost the exact same phrases. It’s a pattern to watch out for. (Chapter 19, 5:30)

Most of the successful entrepreneurs and innovators in this book were product people, rather than sales people. This goes along with comments that both Steve Jobs and Larry Page have made. (Chapter 19, 41:30)

A theme from the book is that efforts that focus on human/machine symbiosis have been much more successful than efforts to get machines to be able to replace humans in general.