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The Innovators

How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

By Walter Isaacson
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  • Contains 12 key ideas
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The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

The Innovators explores the social and cultural forces that inspired technological innovation through the history of computers and the internet. By weaving together the personal stories of technology’s greatest minds, The Innovators gives you an inside look at how the best and the brightest innovate and collaborate.

Key idea 1 of 12

Ada Lovelace’s “poetic” mathematics provided an early vision of the role of modern computers.

It all started with Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of English poet Lord Byron. Although Byron was not involved in her upbringing, Lovelace nonetheless inherited his fiery artistic temperament.

At her mother’s behest, Lovelace began rigorously studying mathematics to discipline her rebellious mind. Over the course of her studies, she developed a passion for technology and machines, which, combined with her wild imagination, resulted in a uniquely “poetic” approach to mathematics.

At the early age of 17, she would attend the weekly salons of the science and math wizard Charles Babbage. These salons were a wonder, with lectures, mechanical dolls, telescopes trained on the stars and fascinating demonstrations of electrical and magnetic contrivances.

The centerpiece of these events, however, was Babbage’s Difference Engine, a large contraption that could make mechanical calculations.

Seeing Babbage’s work inspired her, and in her now famous Notes, she set out her ideas that creatively combined her vast mathematical knowledge with her creative disposition.

In 1834, Babbage took his ideas a step further with his Analytical Engine, a machine that could not only perform a single operation but also could switch operations – and even tell itself to do so.

Between 1842 and 1843, Lovelace translated from the French a transcript of Babbage’s presentation on his engine, to which she added her own copious and groundbreaking notes.

These notes – more than twice as long as Babbage's original article and in the end, far more influential – described “computers” as devices that could process music, patterns and poetry.

Lovelace’s ideas were essentially a prophetic vision of computer functionality, far beyond the simple calculations performed by Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

Lovelace also pioneered computer programming by explaining how the Difference Engine could be programmed with punch cards, thus greatly increasing its versatility and transforming it from a specialized contrivance into a general-purpose machine.

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