It’s good to focus on the future. But many of this generation’s greatest innovators have been as obsessed with the past as with the future, argues Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer and author of a new history of the great computer innovators over the last few hundred years.
“Steve Jobs had a very deep understanding of history,” Isaacson told me. “He loved the history of Silicon Valley.”
Isaacson says that Jobs used to regularly visit the legendary business duo, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, and grill them on the history of the region. Indeed, Isaacson told me that Jobs said, “Life is a like a river; and you take things out of that river that other people before you have put in and then you try to put something back in the river that’s your contribution.”
Jobs was a fierce supporter of the humanities. When he introduced the new iPad back in 2011, he said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”
It’s especially timely to note that Grace Hopper, the namesake of last week’s Google conference on women in computing and a pioneer in early 20th century programming, was also a history buff. Isaacson tells me that she and her partner, Howard Aiken, studied the fragments of the original computer from Charles Babbage when they were designing their own contributions; Babbage’s invention was acknowledged in Aiken and Hopper’s instructional manual for the famous Mark I computer, one of the first modern computing devices.
“I think great innovators tend to know the data points that got us to where we are.”
Fortunately, for many in the Bay Area, there’s a Computer History museum in the very city Google calls home. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for startups and tech companies to take a little company field trip to learn about their forerunners.