Having written thorough lives of individual visionaries including Einstein and Franklin, Walter Isaacson was already at work on the group portrait that would become The Innovators (Simon & Schuster, $35) when Steve Jobs interrupted him to write Jobs’s authorized biography. After completing that bestseller, Isaacson returned to his abandoned manuscript, which is now this polished and masterful narrative of how diverse wizards of technology worked at myriad intersections of art and science to create both computers and the internet. Many will be astonished to learn that the earliest insight into this technology was achieved by Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of Lord Byron, who is credited with being the first computer programmer and with developing the first algorithm. Lovelace worked with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, a distant prototype of many later devices theorized and assembled by figures including Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Vannevar Bush, Grace Hopper, and many more. Isaacson documents in fascinating detail these hard-working geniuses’ decades of trials and errors.
Steven Johnson, author of bestselling popular-science books including The Invention of Air, and a creator of TV and web media, is a local boy who graduated from St. Albans School. Like Walter Isaacson, Johnson is an expert on how the sciences and humanities intersect in numerous ways, and he can lucidly explain how the gradual accretion of many small ideas grows into the grand illumination of a true paradigm shift. Johnson’s broad appeal also rests on his grand maxim that everything correlates. He explains How We Got to Now (Riverhead, $30) by chronicling six keystone innovations that, together, paved the way for the modern world. Accompanied by drawings, photographs, and other illuminating and beautiful images, Johnson’s profiles of seminal technologies start with elements as basic as glass or light, and develop into complex systems—systems both technological and social. Working with “cold,” for example, scientists and entrepreneurs moved from 19th-century ice houses to refrigeration to air conditioning, ultimately making habitable many formerly unwelcoming environments.
Timothy Egan won the 2006 National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time, his chronicle of the 1930s Dust Bowl catastrophe as experienced by ordinary people. His new book, Short Nights of The Shadow Catcher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28), is an equally vivid and engaging account of the life of Edward Curtis (1868-1952), the brilliant photographer of Native Americans. Hailing from Seattle, Curtis began tinkering with cameras as a boy and was largely self-taught as a photographer. He was also an amateur anthropologist and archeologist, gradually combining his interests to document Native American culture. At a time when popular media scorned American Indians, Curtis, dubbed the “Shadow Catcher” by the Hopis, dedicated himself to presenting these peoples with sympathy and dignity—as is apparent in the examples of his work included in this book. Unfortunately, Curtis was also an amateur businessman and died penniless.