By Clay Chandler

Clay is an author, editor and fellow at Hult International Business School where he follows technology, economics and global business. He is a former Asia editor at McKinsey & Company, and has held senior editorial roles at Fortune, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter @claychandler

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Author Walter Isaacson is best known for his blockbuster biographies of brilliant individuals: Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and, most notably, Apple founder Steve Jobs.

In his latest book, Isaacson takes a completely different approach. In The Innovators, rather than focusing on a single genius protagonist, Isaacson engages in serial biography, weaving together the stories of more than 60 philosophers, scientists, engineers, tinkerers and inventors whose collective work resulted in computers and the eventual, colossal rise of computing and the Internet.

Here you’ll find tales of the people who hatched all the various subcomponents of what we now think of as the “Digital Revolution”: the transistor, the microchip, the microprocessor, the programmable computer, the graphic interface, video games, the Internet, search engines, crowd-sourced online encyclopedias and mobile phones.

Isaacson’s overarching message is in many ways a counterpoint to his earlier heroic biographies. In this book, he argues that the key innovations in the Digital Revolution have not been the result of solitary individuals. Rather, he says, the real breakthroughs were the work of teams, and accumulated incrementally over time though cooperation and collaboration.

The Innovators is organized into chapters that look at the different groups of technologies: “The Computer,” “Programming,” “The Microchip,” “Video Games,” “The Internet,” etc. Isaacson starts with the trio that invented the transistor and was led by William Shockley, an abrasive egomaniac whose compulsion to claim credit for development of the transistor caused his entire team to defect and form Fairchild Semiconductor. Shockley emerges as a prime anti-hero in a work that celebrates innovation as the outcome of people more interested in discovering new knowledge than deciding who gets credit.

An important subtheme of this book is that some of the best teams are pairs of opposites—visionaries matched up with tinkerers or technocrats. Consider, for example, Apple’s two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, whose given names were about all they had in common. Isaacson sees a similar yin and yang among Google’s Brin and Page. He argues the success of Microsoft depended as much on the hands-on implementation skills of Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer as it did on the strategic vision of Bill Gates.

Isaacson also credits “ecosystems.” In Silicon Valley, the various teams of visionaries and tinkerers operated in larger environments that included venture capital investors, universities and, paradoxically, the US military.

One of most interesting themes of The Innovators is how the freewheeling and often anarchic community of hippies, hackers and stoners in San Francisco’s Bay Area come to team up with Pentagon Cold Warriors in developing new digital technologies. In explaining how such a diverse milieu could work together, Isaacson compares the development of the Internet to building a cathedral. The task is too vast for any single architect or builder. Rather, the structure can only be assembled piece by piece by many different teams of specialized workers.

The chapters about the creation of the Internet seem to bear out some of Clayton Christensen’s theories about how easy it is for big corporations with giant Research and Development facilities to ignore truly innovative ideas. Isaacson recounts how RAND Corporation researcher Paul Baran, looking for a way to minimize the vulnerability of America’s communications networks to nuclear attack, came up with the idea of packet switching—employing a far-flung, decentralized network to transmit information in tiny bundles. Executives and engineers at AT&T were adamant that the idea would never work.

Gates emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in The Innovators—a radical and relentless negotiator who seems to have little in common with the sweater-clad humanitarian we know today. Isaacson describes how Gates was both stunned and delighted to discover the narrow-mindedness of executives at big companies like IBM, who fail to recognize that personal computers will soon become commodities and blithely licensed off the thing that was really valuable, software for their operating systems, to then-tiny Microsoft.

In his chapter about Xerox PARC, the research and development lab that generated most of the big breakthroughs in the 1970s, Isaacson reminds readers of one of the facility’s mantras: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” True enough. But the Gates chapters suggest the best way to profit from the future is not only to predict it but to lock in barriers to entry that shelter your company from unrestrained competition.

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster) 2014.