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The Masters of the Digital Revolution

Walter Isaacson’s New Book Follows the Innovators of the First Digital Computer


In 1941, University of Pennsylvania physicist John Mauchly visited Iowa State University physicist John Atanasoff to learn about the latter’s designs for a digital computer. While Mauchly and engineer Presper Eckert would earn credit for inventing the first digital computer, called ENIAC, Atanasoff successfully challenged their patent, which was stripped in 1973. And although Atanasoff won in court, Mauchly comes out the victor in a new sweeping history of the minds who brought us eight seminal inventions of the digital age, including the transistor, the microchip, the Internet, software, and the World Wide Web.

In an interview with The Santa Barbara Independent this week, author Walter Isaacson, who previously penned biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, explained his rationale in writing The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

“I saw that there was a lone visionary in Iowa who invented the electronic circuit that could do logic — John Atanasoff — but he could never execute because he didn’t have a team around him,” said Isaacson. “So he never got it up and running. In truth, the real first computer was done at the University of Pennsylvania . … The ability to put together a team is what distinguished the people building ENIAC from the guy in Iowa machining stuff down in his basement. … Innovation without execution is hallucination.”

For this project, Isaacson wanted to make the point that great innovations do not leap forth spontaneously from the cortexes of singular geniuses. They are more often than not the result of collaborations that are supported by industry, government, and academia, ushered into existence by a host of social forces and historical happenstances.

When asked about the political conclusions of his thesis, Isaacson said, “I worry that in a very highly political time, people on the left think [innovation is] mainly the purview of government. People on the right think that it’s mainly the purview of private industry. I wanted to show how we can shun both politics and realize how each sector has an important role to play and that they can work together.”

In Isaacson’s mission to break down barriers, none might be as important as that between art and technology. He brackets his book with the story of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, who collaborated with Charles Babbage on the first mechanical computer. Trained as a mathematician, Lovelace longed for a “poetical science,” foreshadowing, Isaacson argues, the most revolutionary technological accomplishments of recent history.

“The theme of the digital revolution,” he said, “has been the ability to connect computers more closely with humans. Some people thought that we would achieve artificial intelligence. The way it turned out, connection between humans and machines was the driving force. Our computers today are more personal, more intimate, more interactive with us. That culminates with Apple Watch and Google Glass.”

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Walter Isaacson will speak Thursday, October 16, 5 p.m., at UCSB’s Campell Hall. For more info, see cappscenter.ucsb.edu.

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