The digital revolution was created by hackers, geniuses and geeks

The origin of the tech industry and the advancements that have created the worlds wealthiest people is summed up beautifully in the words of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” In recognizing the motivation in men and taking action with perfect timing, you can have your name emblazoned in the history books and make a few shillings in the process.

Isaac Walterson in his book The Innovators writes an authoritative history of the digital revolution of such significance that if the Nicene Council were held today, it would be added to the Bible immediately after the Book of Revelations. Perhaps it has not been divinely inspired, but the chronology of the last one hundred and fifty years of the most significant invention of our time is full of cases, anecdotes, philosophy, history and the art that has truly made us gods in the chrysalis.

In the beginning there was chaos and Charles Babbage said ‘let there be an Analytical Engine’ — a general purpose computer that could carry out a variety of different operations based on programming instructions given to it. Little did he know that he was one hundred years ahead of his time and by 1946 after the construction of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), the first fully electronic and digital computer, did the vision of the Analytical Engine truly come to life.

Perhaps it was in the words of Ada Lovelace who provided the prophetic inspiration for the modern computer, that it was a machine that enhanced our productivity through a marriage of science and art, or what she called poetical science. Through that vision, the concept of the computer stretched beyond arithmetic and logic and the core of the digital age was born, that any piece of content, data or information — music, text, pictures, numbers, symbols, sounds, video — could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines.

None of these ideas would come to life without collaboration and the classic example of this comes from John Mauchly who traveled the US gleaning insights from a variety of experiences, conversations, and observations and combining them into powerful ideas. Mauchly also had the inclination to work with teams filled with varied talents to develop what came to be known as the first electronic general-purpose computer.

“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way,” Einstein once said, “but intuition is nothin but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” On a corporate level, the industry owes its success to the collaboration between the government, the military, the universities and eventually the corporations that brought policy, funding, practical application, experimentation, knowledge, and a business model to the party.

The string of pioneers worked collaboratively and the book is full of dynamic duos such as those of Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett of HP, Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, and earlier figures like Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore of Intel.

It goes to show that innovation comes from teams more often than from the eureka moments of lone geniuses, and as brilliant as the many inventors of the Internet and computer were, they achieved most of their advances through teamwork. Another key to fielding a great team is paring visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them. Visions without execution are hallucinations.

When we were kids, my brother and I would head out to ‘Pop In’, the gaming arcade in Nairobi’s central business district, where we witnessed the domination of pinball machines gradually diminish as the popularity video games came into play. We didn’t realize at the time that this was due to the combination of the hardcore hacker culture in the US universities and the rebel entrepreneurs who wanted to break the chokehold that the pinball distributor cartels had on the amusement games industry, which was ripe for a digital disruption.

Video games were the precursor to the Graphic User Interface (GUI) that we now take for granted considering that babies and the illiterate can now operate computers, smartphones and tablets. The significance however is expressed in the words of Plato when he said “Let early education be a sort of amusement. You will then be better able to find out the natural bent.”

In capturing the history of the computer revolution starting with the creation of  Babbage’s Difference Engine up to the time when IBM’s computer Watson won Jeopardy (America’s favorite quiz show), Walterson’s book is of biblical proportions, providing an authoritative reference of the life and times of the worlds greatest innovators thus far. It is a story of the pioneers, hackers, inventors and entrepreneurs — who they were, how their minds worked and what made them so creative.

I recommend it to anyone in business because of its immense insight and inspiration for today’s world characterized by rapid change. Make sure you add it to your reading list in 2017.


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