The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

1. Ada, Countess of Lovelace

  • The book starts in 1833 when Ada Byron, daughter of Lord Byron, was introduced at the British Royal Court. She was tutored in math which she further nurtured herself in adulthood, and was also comfortable with the romantic literature of the day. She soon met Charles Babbage, a science and math wiz who invented the Difference engine, a giant calculating machine. On one factory visit, Ada was introduced to an automated weaving loom that was programmed by punched cards. This reminded her of Babbage’s machine. Her marriage to William King who later became the Earl of Lovelace resulted in her title as the Countess of Lovelace, which lead to her being known as Ada Lovelace.
  • Over time, Ada and Babbage collaborated as she was fascinated with his idea for an Analytical engine that could perform more general purpose calculations. Her notes from that time envisioned the modern computer. She also realized that such machines could operate on any symbols, not just numbers. She realized that pictures, sounds and music could be represented in digital form and manipulated by a machine. Her first program computed a complex series known as Bernoulli numbers. This introduced the concepts of subroutines, recursive loops, conditional branching, and the iterative process to the math literature. Such efforts earned her the accolade of the world’s first computer programmer although Babbage probably deserves some credit. Sadly, Babbage’s machine was never built and he died in poverty. Ada never published again. She became addicted to gambling and opiates and died from cancer in 1852 at age 36 has had her estranged father. She was honored by the Department of Defense when her name Ada was use for a programming language in honor of the fact that she helped sow the seeds for a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later.

2. The Computer

  • Here we start 100 years later in 1937 with the ideas of Alan Turing. (He is the subject of the current movie The Imitation Game. Turing developed the concept of a logical computing machine, which soon became know as the Turing machine. This machine needed to be fully electronic with no mechanical moving parts, programmable, and general purpose. During the 1930’s and 1940’s many attempts were made to produce a machine that could compute at great speed. To a large extent, World War II pushed things along due to the need to calculate trajectories for weapon systems and to break encryption codes of the Germans.
  • Drawing on ideas from other attempts, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert created a plan for a machine they called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). Their design was finished in 1943, but the machine itself was not finished until November of 1945 after the war has ended. It was 100 feet long and eight feet high and weighed close to 30 tons. It’s 17,468 vacuum tubes made it 100 times faster than any previous machine.
  • Eckert and Mauchly served as counterbalances for each other, which made them typical of many digital-age leadership duos. Eckert drove people with a passion for precision, while Mauchly tended to calm them and make them feel loved. Eckert conceded that neither could have done it alone. There was also lengthly legal action as the result of ideas they garnered elsewhere. Details of the litigation and other efforts make for fascinating reading.
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