Standing on the Shoulders of Tech Giants

August 27, 2015 The TNS Group

I’m the father of three daughters, one entering her sophomore year of college, another her sophomore year of high school, and the third, fourth grade. The older two are focused on careers in STEM, an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. (If I had to guess right now, the youngest would probably like to have a career in Minecraft.)

Over the years, I’ve tried to inspire my girls by sharing with them some of the people, and women in particular, about whom I’ve been reading. (“Oh, no!  Dad’s got a thick new book…Run!!”)  And so I write this first for my daughters, but am glad to share it with the rest of you.

Sir Isaac Newton wrote in 1676, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This was brought home to me in my study of Computer Science.  In order to obtain my Bachelor of Science degree I was required to take about 10 classes in “higher” mathematics (we wrote some code too).

As a naïve college undergrad, I was somehow under the illusion during my senior year that our classes were state-of-the-art, the latest and greatest.  Then, at the beginning of our final class, a professor popped that balloon by telling us that the study of mathematics is essentially the history of mathematics, that when we were very young we learned what is very old, as we learn more successively we slowly approach what is currently being discovered, and that what we were learning was many decades behind the state-of-the-art.

Every breakthrough rests on a foundation laid before by great minds.  We were standing on the shoulders of giants.

So too it must be with most areas of learning and especially the sciences, but my own particular area of interest is Information Technology, and Walter Isaacson’s book ‘The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution’, published in 2014, paints the same picture.

Isaacson is a masterful biographer. I greatly enjoyed his books about Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs. But ‘The Innovators’ is something more … not just one central great life, but a hundred, all necessary to get to the place where it is possible to transform zeros and ones into what you are now reading (unless someone put a printed copy of this into an envelope with a postage stamp addressed to you).

And it all started with Ada, Countess of Lovelace, who was born to Lord and Lady Byron in 1815 and died a short 36 years later.

“If it wasn’t for Ada Lovelace, there’s a chance that none of this [Silicon Valley] would even exist,” Isaacson told the New York Times. The Times went on to say “Ms. Lovelace’s role in tech, for example, is so paramount that her story is the opening and closing chapter.

An English mathematician and writer, she wrote the first-ever computer algorithm, put forth the idea that humanities and technology should coexist and dreamed up the concept of artificial intelligence.”

What this father of three daughters found most remarkable about the book was the number of women who played pivotal roles in the history of silicon and bits and bytes and who are essentially forgotten.

Ada, Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Grace Hopper (who coined the term “computer bugs”), Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman …. If it weren’t for these and many other women whose stories are brought to life in Isaacson’s book, well, let’s just say that you’d be buying a lot more stamps.

And don’t get me started on Isaacson’s concept of “augmented intelligence”.  I’ll save that for a future blog.  In the meantime, you may want to read the book and also The New York Times article.

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