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

3. Programming

  • Computers need programs to do anything, and remarkably, both the ENIAC team at Penn and the Mark I team at Harvard involved women in the process. While all of the hardware people were men, programming was seen as a clerical job suited for females. Ironically, had the administrators realized how crucial programming would be, they might have been more hesitant to give the job to women. The main player on Eckert and Mauchly’s team was Grace Hopper, who had a PhD in math and was a naval lieutenant during World War II. During her work with the Mark I, she wrote what is considered the first computer programming manual. She perfected the subroutine and helped popularize the terms bug and debugging. Thanks to Hooper, the Mark I became the world’s easiest programmable big computer. It had the advantage of taking information in via punched paper tape, but it was much slower than ENIAC as it still had moving electromechanical relays. The ENIAC was thousands of times faster, but the programmers had to change a patchwork of wires to change programs. This task was largely done by a team of six women lead by Jean Jennings. Her story and the story of her teammates makes for fascinating reading.
  • The next interesting character to enter the story was a Hungarian-born mathematician named John Von Neumann. He was a gregarious polymath with a legendary intelligence. A main contribution was figuring out how to store a program in computer memory. He also figured out how to make a computer modify its own program based on the results it was getting. While he started with the Mark I, he also consulted with the ENIAC team.
  • In 1946, Eckert and Mauchly left Penn to form their own commercial business that created the next big computer named UNIVAC, which became a celebrity on election night in 1952 by predicting the winner early. They brought Grace Hopper with them and while there she created the world’s first workable compiler, which allowed ordinary folks to write programs in something that looked like English. She started the open-source approach by sending her work out for others to improve, and lead the creation of COBOL, the first cross-platform language for computers.

4. The Transistor

  • The next big actor on our sage wasn’t a single player but a team assembled at AT&T’s Bell Labs. The reason that computers were so big was due to the size of the vacuum tubes that stored and processed information. By bringing theorists and engineers who had vision and passion, they set the stage for the development of the solid state device known as the transistor. The three players who earned the Nobel prize for this discovery were William Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen. The details are fascinating of how a small device was able to use low-powered current to control much higher current. Brattain and Bardeen produced the first crude transistor in 1947, and Shockley produced an improved version soon after. It wasn’t long before transistors were replacing the vacuum tubes in radios and finding their way into computers.

5. The Microchip

  • Here we have players a two major corporations. The team that got there first was headed by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments. Meanwhile at Fairchild, Robert Noyce lead a team that made a better, more practical product. The idea of the microchip was to place multiple devices like transistors on the same piece of silicon. The Kilby product featured gold wires connecting the devices while the Noyce chip laid down a grid of copper on the chip to connect the chip’s components. As with many innovations, there were two different paths to solving the problem. You won’t be surprised that a lengthly legal battle followed that our legal system seem ill equipped to deal with. Ultimately, the companies worked it out so they could both profit. Kilby finally got the Nobel prize in 2000. He didn’t share it with Noyce who died in 1990 as only living people can be selected for a Nobel. In addition to the military, many consumer products such as pocket calculators soon contained microchips.
  • The race was on to make microchips smaller, faster, cheaper, and more powerful. The microchip and the computer would drive each other’s development just like the oil and auto businesses did earlier in the century. One of the participants at Fairchild named Gordon Moore predicted that the number of components on a single chip would double each year for the next ten years. While subsequent predictions were for a somewhat slower growth, the trend has been close to Moore’s prediction, which became known as Moore’s Law.
  • Noyce and Moore left Fairchild together to form Intel with help from some of the earliest venture capitalists. They Added Andy Grove as they needed a hard-charging no nonsense manager to balance their styles. Andy was born in Hungary and his father was sent to a concentration camp. This may have contributed to his blunt, no-bullshit style, which featured brutal honesty, clear focus, and a demanding drive for excellence that would later typify Steve Job’s approach to management.
  • The next big innovation came when the engineers at Intel realized you could combine the functions of many special purpose chips on a single chip. Thus the microprocessor was born in 1971. The 4004, as it was called, was essentially a computer processor on a chip. It was priced at $200 and the orders poured in fast. This spawned many other businesses in the region and gave the area the name Silicon Valley.
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