Ten years ago, after completing his critically acclaimed Ben Franklin biography, Walter Isaacson was struck by Franklin’s creation of the postal and publishing networks. “I then wondered, how did the Internet begin? I thought I’d write the history of the Internet. Then I talked to Bill Gates, who said, ‘No, the history of the Internet and the personal computer are intertwined, you should do a history about both of them.”
At the same time, Isaacson’s daughter was applying to college and wouldn’t allow her parents to read her college essay about who in history inspired her. He tells Show Daily, “Once she turned it in, I said, ‘You’ve got to let me read it. What’s it on?’ She said, ‘Ada Lovelace.’ I said, ‘Who’s Ada Lovelace?’ And she said, ‘Lord Byron’s daughter; she invented the computer algorithm.’ I started researching Ada Lovelace, who created the idea of a general purpose computer that could be programmed, back in the 1830s. I became interested in her, and then Steve Jobs called so I put it aside. But writing about Steve Jobs made me even more interested in who were the people who made Steve possible.” Hence, his latest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, Oct.). “This is a book about how true creativity comes from being able to collaborate and work as a team,” Isaacson says. “If you learn one thing from the book, you’re going to learn how innovation really happens.”
Some of the big names Isaacson showcases include Alan Turing, the first computer theorist, who broke the German codes for the British during WWII; Robert Noyce, who invented the microchip; Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web; and Larry Page, cofounder of Google. Asked if there were surprises in his research, Isaacson says, “How art and the humanities and imagination played such a big role. We think it’s all engineers and technology.”
But many of the people behind the digital revolution had big egos. Show Daily wanted to know how that fit in with his concept of teamwork. “Sometimes you can be strong willed, but still know that you have to build teams. That was Steve Job’s secret sauce. He had the best engineers and designers. And the same with Bill Gates—he was really smart, but he knew he needed a team. If you look at both of them, they [each] started with a partner. Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates had Paul Allen.”
The prolific writer, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, is happy to be back at BEA. “Book Expo to me is a little slice of heaven,” says Isaacson.
He will be in a one-on-one discussion about his book with author Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, today in room 1E10/1E11, E Hallway (lower level), 10–11 a.m.