A Note to Walter Isaacson on “The Innovators”

Appreciating a terrific book while also wishing that the BASIC story was included.

December 15, 2014

Published in October of 2014.

Dear Mr. Isaacson,

I was initially hesitant to download The Innovators. This was a story that I thought that I knew. I wondered how much I’d learn from yet another book about the history of computers and the web. Fortunately, I overcame my initial hesitations and made the decision to invest some time in your book. (The fact that the Kindle version only costs $8.99, and the Audible audio version is set-up for Whispersync, definitely helped in motivating this purchase). 
I’ve found that the benefits tend to be underrated of having a limited social life and of basically ignoring all social media.  Chief amongst these advantages is the time freed up to read books. I'm happy to report that the quality of your writing stands above most of the writers that compete for our attention. I have been an avid reader of your books (and articles), and I am of the opinion that The Innovators is your strongest effort to date.  
Where I was initially concerned about the length of The Innovators (560 pages, 17.5 hours), my concerns proved misplaced. Your book went by quickly and enjoyably, propelled by a strong narrative that beautifully connects the early days of computing with the birth of the modern world of hardware, software and the Internet. In connecting the earliest thinking on computing, the initial forays into hardware and software, and the emergence of networked computing and eventually the web, you enable us to understand how all these innovations built on each other. There exists a strong line between the Babbage’s Difference Engine, ENIAC, and the Internet - a line that is difficult to grasp unless the story is told as a whole.  
A second area that I wish to commend you in The Innovators is your attempt to understand the conditions in which innovation emerges. Throughout your story you continually stress the collaborative nature of the teams responsible for each advance in hardware and software.  A history of technology innovation as seen through the lens of relationships is more complex, but also more satisfying. The Innovators is an important read not only for those of us interested in the history of computers, software and the web.  Your book should also count as essential reading for anyone wishing to develop an organizational culture conducive to innovation, experimentation, and risk taking.
If I have one complaint about The Innovators, and it is a big one, is your failure to tell the Dartmouth BASIC story. This complaint may sound parochial, as quite naturally anyone who makes his living working at the intersection of technology and learning in Hanover NH (as I do) will be upset that the invention of BASIC (and time-sharing) is largely left out. The story of the development of BASIC is essential in understanding the larger history of the development of computing.  
If you are not familiar with the history of BASIC I invite you to spend some time at the site BASIC at 50, which includes a link to the terrific film on The Birth of BASIC. I also want to extend a personal invitation to you to come to campus to speak to our community about The Innovators.  We think that you would enjoy the opportunity to meet many of the people responsible for the creation of BASIC, as well as those of us trying to live up to the legacy of this innovation.  
Mr Isaacson, what are you reading?


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