Walter Isaacson’s latest 500-pager, THE INNOVATORS: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, is a paradox. Much like its predecessor, STEVE JOBS, it’s a dense page-turner.
For pages and pages, it made me think about where I was when important things were invented.
In 1970, when Alan Kay went to work at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) with the dream of creating a personal computer, I was in kindergarten.
In 1971, when Ray Tomlinson invented a way to send Email, I was in first grade.
In 1973, when I began “reading to learn,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, were born.
In 1975, when the magazine Popular Electronics announced “The World’s First Minicomputer Kit,” the Altair 8800, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen decided to create a software industry, I was in fifth grade.
In 1977, when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak released the $1,298 Apple II—as Isaacson puts it, “the first personal computer to be simple and fully integrated, from the hardware to the software”—I was in middle school. Within three years, 100,000 Apple IIs were sold.
In 1983, I went off to college with an electric typewriter. Ours was the last class to enter Princeton without computers. I wrote all of my papers on that typewriter until the spring, when I joined the staff of the literary magazine. We were told it would be more efficient to produce the magazine if we used a computer. So I went to the Computer Lab, and someone up there showed me how to use one. There was a room dedicated to high-volume printers, as I recall, and you would wait for someone to sort through what was spit out, then they would put your printout in an alphabetized set of cubbies in a ziplock bag with a top sheet labeled with your name.
In 1984, Apple released the Macintosh, and all of the freshmen arrived with computers. I could not afford one, and the university had begun to populate more buildings with computer labs, so I used one in my dorm.
In 1985, one night I stayed up until 2 or 3 in the morning talking with one of my advisees about the increasing spread of computers on campus. We debated whether or not it was a good thing that the library was going to replace the card catalog with computers. Sure, maybe you could search and find more easily the one thing you were looking for, but what would become of those serendipitous moments when you flipped through the cards and found something really cool? How would you ever find that thing you didn’t know you were looking for? As I said, it was late at night.
In 1987, I graduated and began teaching high school English. I did not own a computer. I owned a collection of floppy disks. I inserted them into the computers at school. Then I convinced the kind folks at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who’d given me a Teaching Fellowship, to allow me to spend some of the money on a computer. Since the school computers were IBM and Apple’s software was not compatible, I bought an IBM.
In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee made the World Wide Web possible, inventing URLs, HTML, and HTTP. But there were no search engines. I was still mainly using my computer for word processing. In grad school, I would write long letters to friends, print them out, and mail them in large envelopes.
In 1993, I joined millions of other Americans making use of the free AOL disks that appeared relentlessly in the mail. Finally, the Internet was really open for business. Email truly became a thing. But still: no search engines. You couldn’t Google things because Google wouldn’t be launched for another five years. People created groups, listserves, electronic bulletin boards—pockets of information that were helpful if you knew where to look.
I could go on, but you get the point. So much has changed. But one thing has not: Walter Isaacson is still a great writer.