Walter Isaacson The Innovators.pdf
Walter Isaacson The Innovators.pdf
isaacson treats ada lovelace as a proto-hacker, or at least a proto-hacker-in-training. in a parallel to the early history of the internet, lovelace is credited with the first public publication of a computer algorithm, the analytical engine, in 1843. in fact, she is more closely associated with the creation of the first widely used programming language. the analytical engine was not a computer per se; it was a complex mechanical invention that lovelace intended to model the operations of the human brain, and that she described as a “fancy piece of mechanism.” in chapter 7, “the first programmer,” isaacson notes that lovelace published her notes on the analytical engine under the pseudonym of “grace o’malley,” but the name doesn’t appear to be well known. while lovelace is famous for helping to invent the computer, in isaacson’s telling she can be best understood as a proto-hacker-in-training.
isaacson makes the case that lovelace was the first hacker, citing her authorship of a poem, “an analytical engine, calculating machine”, published anonymously in 1843, as evidence that she had created a computer before babbage. lovelace would certainly agree with this claim. the poem has a remarkable set of tables that map the analytical engine’s program onto a series of discrete actions, including operations that later became widely known as subroutines and loops.
given that lovelace is thought of as a proto-hacker, it is somewhat strange that isaacson describes her as a “historian.” since so many of the things she did were collaborative, isaacson is describing lovelace as a kind of grandmaster hacker, with no one to teach, guide, or mentor her. if lovelace was a proto-hacker, the historical and academic communities have done her a disservice by giving her the title of “historian.” it is hard to see how the term “historian” fits lovelace. in fact, lovelace was a creative hacker. this theme is not without historical precedent: the first programmer, ada lovelace, was not a historian, but a writer and artist.
isaacson’s treatment of the internet consists of little more than a few cautionary observations, and his understanding of the early commercial history of the medium shows little grasp of the history of invention. he notes that gates and jobs founded microsoft while he was writing, and even identifies bill gates as the inventor of internet explorer. (what a relief. for years microsoft had been trying to convince us that gates created it in some other time/place.) however, he describes netscape as “one of the first internet browsers,” a shocking error if you are familiar with the competition for browser market share, and to most people netscape was the inventor of the web browser, not microsoft. more substantially, isaacson knows the work of weaver and labate is nothing to be jealous about, but he still co-opts their work to shore up his narrative of history. he assures his readers that netscape pioneered the web and has the most significant claim to innovation while he neglects to mention that netscape merely paid weaver for the ideas he came up with, and not least gates and jobs, who acquired the browser and yahoo! as part of their acquisition of netscape. this book is certainly not written for a lay audience, and one wonders if isaacson’s interest in the early history of computing came from his own childhood interest in computers or from his extensive work in the media. however, the innovators is clearly intended for a general readership and most importantly to young programmers. the last chapter mentions several computer science curricula, but misses the oldest of them by several decades. the most basic computer science program in the united states began at uc-davis in 1968, when bill gosper gave a lecture on the subject while in the process of conducting his dissertation research. gosper had a babbage machine in his office and by his own account got the idea to create a programming environment after reading a popular science book and a textbook about the machine, and learning about computer programming from vannevar bush and time-sharing systems. 5ec8ef588b