Sometimes the roots of a writer’s obsessions go all the way back to childhood. Searching for memories that might have inspired his most recent bestseller, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” Walter Isaacson can conjure afternoons spent in his family’s Broadmoor garage, building Heathkits and ham radios and fooling with transistors.
“I grew up with soldering irons,” he said. “My dad’s an engineer, and so was my great-uncle and my other uncle, and my brother’s a computer consultant. It’s great to grow up in a household where people love electronics.”
That love of electronics was in shining evidence in “Steve Jobs,” Isaacson’s biography of the colorful and controversial founder of Apple. No wonder he was drawn to explore the creation story of the digital revolution at large in “The Innovators.”
Isaacson, now the CEO of The Aspen Institute, has also been the managing editor of Time Magazine and the head of CNN. He’s in a unique position to appreciate the changes of the technological era, and has been at the forefront of many.
His biographies of “geniuses” such as Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Jobs have carved out a niche for him; those were preceded by books like “The Wise Men,” co-authored with Evan Thomas, and a massive biography of Henry Kissinger.
“The Innovators” takes the story of personal computing all the way back to the 19th century, when Ada Byron Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, saw the potential for punch cards used in looms in Great Britain to become a computing machine. She got in touch with Charles Babbage, one of the techies of his day, and so began the long story of the machine that would eventually end up on your desktop.
Ada Lovelace is only the first of many women to be given their due in this chronicle; early computer programmer Grace Hopper and the women of ENIAC (the Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator), funded by the U.S. War Department in 1943, also were among the unsung heroines.
“The six women who programmed ENIAC were among the pioneers of the digital age. And most of their work was done secretly, during wartime. Women understood that the hardware would become interchangeable, but COBOL and the other programming languages were at the essence of the digital revolution,” Isaacson said. He is pleased to have been a part of giving their stories greater visibility.
Isaacson organizes his book by technical advance — the computer, progamming, the transistor, the microchip, etc. — but what gives the book its real urgency and focus are its individual portraits set against the larger social context in which those developments were taking place.
Readers see firsthand how war advances science, how the current structure of alliances between government and universities and corporations evolved, how the free-spirited ’60s contributed to the demand for access to information and personal computing, and how tech collaborations changed the office culture of so much of corporate America. Sweep and vision are here, two of Isaacson’s strengths as a writer.
Isaacson also has a keen sense of the human beings behind the genius label: Bill Gates has a weakness for fast cars, Bob Noyce liked to jump off his barn with a hang glider. So what does Isaacson do to break the narrative knots of writing?
“I’m not a genius,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t invent the microchip. … They have that risk-taking gene. I tend to do things that relax my mind. So I swim long distances, or I also think of what Einstein did, paced and played Mozart. He said it helped connect him to the mysteries of the universe.”
Like many of his readers, Isaacson has grown up with the digital revolution, and he remembers the early days.
“My first computer was a Kaypro. Then I got a Compaq Desk computer. It had two floppy drives but no internal hard drive,” he said. “Ben Rosen, who is from New Orleans and a friend of my father, was then the chairman of Compaq. He came over to my home in New York and personally, with a screwdriver, installed a hard drive on my computer. It was a great treat to have a computer company make a house call — and send its chairman!
“One video game I loved early on was Myst. I love narrative games. I also liked playing online derivatives of Dungeons and Dragons.”
And now, like most high-powered executives, he’s fully armed with MacBook Air and a Dell laptop, an iPhone and a Blackberry.
And what has Isaacson learned from writing “The Innovators”?
“Collaboration is the most important lesson I learned from this book. Creativity is a team sport,” he said.
He’s quick to say that he’s not a genius himself, but he allows as how his particular gift may be in asking questions and talking to people and getting them to tell their stories.
“I like to report,” Isaacson said, recalling with pleasure his early days at The Times-Picayune. “I think back to something Walker Percy said. ‘There are two types of people who come out of Louisiana — preachers and storytellers. For heaven’s sake, be a storyteller.’ ”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM.
and is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.