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Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Innovators’

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Walter Isaacson, a versatile and workmanlike author, has never sounded as excited by his material as he does in “The Innovators.” It may be that he has the same basic qualifications as many of the people he writes about here: “My father and uncles were electrical engineers, and like many of the characters in this book, I grew up with a basement workshop that had circuit boards to be soldered, radios to be opened, tubes to be tested, and boxes of transistors and resistors to be sorted and deployed.”

Mr. Isaacson, who is 62, sounds as if he required no hindsight to know what thrilling times he grew up in. With the strain of romanticism that unites so many of the scientists that this book celebrates, he equates the postwar era with Wordsworth’s description of those who witnessed the start of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

He also grew up just as the Computer Age began to explode. So he has aural, tactile experience of computer kits that had to be assembled at home, the punch cards needed to run room-size computers at college and the screeches of the first modems via telephone line. By the 1990s, he was helping to run a digital division at Time. A decade later, he was writing books, and his best work as a biographer reveals where his heart lies. “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” from 2007, is the most supercharged of his biographies, although he admitted to having difficulty explaining the physics. (“O.K., it’s not easy,” he wrote, “but that’s why we’re no Einstein, and he is.”) His 2011 “Steve Jobs” was an instant classic, despite the obvious problem of dealing with a defensive yet worship-inducing subject.

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