Isaacson’s ‘The Innovators’ tells the history of modern computers

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Have you ever wondered what the imaginative spark was that inspired the invention of computers? The question likely brings thoughts of sweaty engineers and programmers high on Coca-Cola and complex algorithms, spending long nights inside their parent’s garage. Though your thoughts would not entirely deceive you, you would still be wrong. Every computer nerd, video game fan, and internet user around the world should read the latest history of computers called The Innovators.

Walter Isaacson, the author of Jobs, the biography of Apple computer founder and tech icon Steve Jobs, has written the perfect companion piece to his bestselling tome as well as a truly captivating history of the modern computer.

The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine

It all starts with an overview of Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, and his work on the Difference Engine. Babbage’s incomplete, yet elaborate calculating device was operated by the method of finite differences, a rather complex analog calculator for the 19th century. To help raise funding for his various mathemetaical projects that required the use of the Difference Engine, Babage would hold several events at various salons where his guests included the most influential scientific minds and wealthy royal elite.

In mathematics, finite-difference methods (FDM) are numerical methods for approximating the solutions to differential equations using finite difference equations to approximate derivatives.Wikipedia

In 1833, Babbage met Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and daughter of the great poet, Lord Byron. Although she was seventeen when they met, King was already knowledgeable in mathematics (a topic her mother imposed upon Lovelace to prevent the genetic influence of her estranged poet father’s adulterous and incestuous habits). Ada King developed a great friendship with Charles Babbage and they shared a vast correspondence of all things intellectual, mathematical, and scientific.

Jacquard's Loom

Jacquard’s Loom

Decades earlier, Joseph Marie Jacquard had invented a mechanical loom that simplified the process of manufacturing textiles by receiving instructions from a chain of punch cards, each card containing a separate set of instructions. It was revolutionary and in 1834, Charles Babbage decided to utilize the punchcard technology in a new machine he called the Analytical Engine, a programmable multi-purpose computer that was a century ahead of it’s time.

Analytical Engine

Analytical Engine

Babbage, whose Difference Engine had never been completed, could not find the usual funding from his sponsors in Parliament to build a new machine. Eight years later, with the Analytical Engine still not made, but feverishly discussed within his correspondence with Ada of Lovelace, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea wrote a memoir in French about the theoretical machine. Babbage, reinvigorated and ready to fight to build his multi-purpose computer, asked Ada King to translate the French memoir. It took Lovelace nine months to translate Menebrea’s work, but it was her appendix of notes that was absolutely key to the translation and essential to understanding her placement in the history of modern computers.

Lovelace’s notes were far more articulate at expressing the possibilities of the device than Babbage ever was. She had a focused understanding of the potential of the Analytical Engine and the technologies that would spawn from the invention of such a device. She wrote, “the engine [is]the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.” She predicted the creation of graphics, digital music, and the need for mathematical programming. If there was ever a mother to give birth to computers, Ada of Lovelace is that mother.

This is just one of many fascinating tales regarding the age of computers from Isaacson’s brilliant book. The Innovators is about the idealists, engineers, mathematicians and corporations that forged the way for computers as we know them today. It is also about their hard work, innovations, collaborations, and how they helped build the amazing technologies that surround us.

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You will read about the first census tabulated with punch card machines by Herman Hollerith in 1931. You will then discover the many early computers of the 1900s, like the Differential Analyzer, Vannevar Bush’s analog electromechanical computer. Isaacson’s book will introduce you to vacuum tubes, circuits, switches, transistors, and micro-processors. You may even find yourself surprised by how much influence the drug crazed hippies of the sixties had on the invention of the personal computer. Some may find this all a little boring, but if you do pick it up, you will doubtless find yourself wanting to construct a transistor radio, or build a new PC from scratch. The Innovators is an excellent book, and Walter Isaacson has done a tremendous job writing it. We can only hope that his next biography will be about Bill Gates, as the chapter devoted to Microsoft was absorbing. Like with every chapter before and after it, it kept this reviewer up reading late into the night.

About Author

Poet, web designer, and tech writer, Brad Bailey is co-founder of Tech Gen Mag. Having once been a regular in the Orange County poetry circuit, Brad set his notebooks aside to assist childhood friend, Kristian Markus, with the task of building a web-based tech magazine. Born into the Nintendo generation, Brad is a longtime fan of video games, gadgets, and computers.

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