The Innovators – what does it take?

I have been reading a book called “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson which details the history of the computer and how we got to the present state of computing technology. A brilliant read for anyone interested to have an insight on the people, the environment, and the thinking during the time of each invention. Isaacson’s accounts start from the 18th century with Ada Lovelace’s (featured in the image above) first thoughts on creation of a computer that can fulfill multiple functions from math to music, to the 1980s where Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce were making the first microchips from their startup – Intel, closely followed by the invention of the first personal computer (the Altair) by Ed Roberts. We learn more about how Bill Gates was an annoying skinny geek with an extreme ability to focus and sharp business instincts passed down from his wealthy parents, to the actual impact Al Gore made in starting the Internet, up to present day when Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google.

Noteworthy is what brought about all these particular inventions. People tend to have a romantic notion that innovation tends to come from lone geniuses working in their garages. Isaacson however, notes that significant advances were usually made by groups of people and often in an environment with enough resources to see the invention through. Although a man called Atanasoff was one of the first to build a partly electronic computer in his basement in Iowa, it was John Mauchly along with Presper Eckert who got recognition for building ENIAC (first computer) at the University of Pennsylvania. While the former’s invention languished in a basement and was eventually dismantled and forgotten, the latter was built by a team of engineers and well-funded by the government. Mauchly also got his ideas not by himself, but rather from talking to numerous sources, including Atanasoff himself, before he could combine the various ideas into a unique model which he then strove to implement.

The concept of tinkering and building something was also well-ingrained in many inventors. During the 1970s, there were not quite as many distractions as there are today, and many people became hobbyists, cultivating communities that take a do-it-yourself approach. As such people like Gordon Moore, Paul Allen (who started Microsoft with Bill Gates) and Steve Wozniak often started assembling their own radios and computers or experimenting with chemistry sets from a young age. Many of the kids today do not even know what lies inside a computer, much less try to assemble one. Understanding the basics are often a requirement before attempting to break new frontiers.

Another trait many inventors tended to have was an opposition to authority. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are probably most well-known for dropping out of college to start their own companies. The fact that the Internet is not localized to a specific hub but is spread across decentralized units was also the result of people fighting to prevent control by any one entity. Even Larry Page and Sergey Brin concluded that their Montessori schooling, where people do not tell you what to do but you create your own path, was a key contributor to their current success. I often worry that Singaporeans bend too easily to authority. The freedom of the individual, so aggressively defended in America, likely contributes to their intense self- belief that one can do anything, even against large scary bureaucracies. Without this belief, people would not even attempt to go against the grain and invent something new.

So you want to invent something? Be it in computing or biology, talk to smart people, be a team-player, experiment and don’t believe anyone who tells you its impossible!

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