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Summer Reading List: 12 Great Stories About History’s Most Legendary Innovators

2018 July 1
by Greg Satell

All too often, stories about great innovators read like superhero movies. The protagonist goes on a holy quest, overcoming rivals and naysayers along the way. These tales may be inspiring, but they are rarely helpful. The truth is that great innovators are real people, with human flaws. None are perfect.

Einstein could be terribly cruel and his inability to let go of his idea that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” doomed his later career to irrelevance. Henry Ford dabbled in racism and anti-Semitism. Vannevar Bush, who did as much as anyone to build the modern age, engaged in behavior that would be considered corrupt today.

Yet it is often mistakes and failures that we can learn the most from. By understanding how great innovators struggled, we can learn how they overcame challenges to contribute something significant to the world. So when you hit the beach this summer, you might want to think about picking one of these up to learn how innovation really happens.

Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee

The World Wide Web is one of those rare innovations that both truly changed the world and can also be largely attributed to just one person, Tim Berners-Lee. Working as an IT specialist at CERN laboratory in Switzerland he became intensely interested in finding a better way to store and retrieve scientific documents. So in November, 1989 he created the three protocols, HTTP, HTML and URL, that we still use to surf the web today.

Far more than a mere technical guide, Weaving the Web tells Berners-Lee’s personal journey of discovery, bringing his hopes and frustrations to the story of how he brought into life one of the most central technologies of the modern world. It is a wonderfully readable, fun and informative book!


The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman

One of my favorite books is is Surely Your Joking Mr. Feynman, the famous physicist’s often hilarious memoir. But since Steve Shapiro recently included it on his reading list, I’m leaving it off of this one.

However, if anyone can top Feynman’s zany adventures it’s legendary mathematician Paul Erdõs, who was so influential that even today, more than 20 years after his death, scholars still take the time to their calculate their “Erdõs Number,” the amount of links they are away from having published a paper with the great man.

The story is wonderfully told by Paul Hoffman and you’ll be left not only laughing out loud, but feeling jealous of the hundreds of people who are lucky enough to have known the quirky Hungarian and earned the coveted Erdõs number of one.


The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis by Sherwin Nuland

One of the most cautionary tales in the history of innovation is that of Ignaz Semmelweis who, in the 1850s, pioneered the practice of hand washing in hospitals to combat infection. Yet rather than being lauded for his work, he was ostracized. Driven literally mad with frustration, he ended up in an insane asylum where in bitter irony, he died of an infection he contracted under care.

As the story is usually told, it was a case of a blind establishment unwilling to embrace a new idea. However, as Sherwin Nuland explains in this book, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Semmelweis himself, who failed to document his work in a manner that would have helped validate it and gain acceptance.

Things that change the world always arrive out of context, for the simple reason that the world hasn’t changed yet. Successful innovators do more than just bring brilliant ideas into the world, they have the courage and tenacity to see them through.


A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot by Mary Walton

When you think of a powerful social movement, you probably think of something like Black Lives Matter, the struggle for LGBT rights or #MeToo. Or possibly something more historical, like Gandhi in India, Nelson Mandela in South Africa or Martin Luther King in America. However, before any of these came to pass there was the movement to grant women’s suffrage.

A Woman’s Crusade tells the story of Alice Paul, who was perhaps the most important figure in the struggle to win the vote for women. In fact, many of the tactics of the more famous movements that came later were actually first employed Alice Paul and her compatriots. This is a great book about a chapter in American history that is too often ignored.


The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle by Eric Lax

The story of the development of penicillin is one of the most misunderstood in the history of science. As it is usually told, Alexander Fleming discovered it by accident when a mysterious mold contaminated his petri dishes. The reality is far more complex and much more interesting.

What really happened was that when Fleming made his discovery, no one really noticed. It was just another scientific paper buried in an obscure journal. It wasn’t until a decade later that his work was rediscovered by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain who, working with many other scientists, developed penicillin into the miracle cure we know today.

Perhaps most importantly, this book shows how innovation really happens, not by lone geniuses but as a long-term collaborative effort that spans discovery, engineering and transformation.


Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century by Gregg Pascal Zachary

Vannevar Bush lived a life of such extraordinary prominence and accomplishment it can scarcely be believed. He was an engineering professor at MIT, the inventor of the differential analyzer, an early computer, a mentor to Claude Shannon,  a technological visionary and co-founder of a Fortune 500 company, Raytheon. But his greatest legacy is as the architect of America’s scientific infrastructure.

This book is a must read for anybody who is interested in technological development. What Bush imagined — and then pushed into reality by almost sheer force of will — is largely responsible for America’s technological dominance since World War II.


American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin

As the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in World War II, one of the programs Vannevar Bush oversaw was the Manhattan Project that led to the atomic bomb. American Prometheus tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man chosen to lead that project.

Oppenheimer was more than a scientist, he was a cultural icon. After the war, he went on to become President of the Institute of Advanced Study where he oversaw many of the world’s greatest minds, from Einstein to George Kennan. This book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, actually manages to do the incredible story justice.


Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes

Thomas Edison’s impact was so substantial and pervasive that his name itself has become nearly synonymous with invention. Yet while we all know the rough outlines of his creation of the light bulb, we hear surprisingly little of what came after, his legendary battle with George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla in the “War of the Currents.”

Jill Jonnes is an excellent historian and she does a superb job of not only telling the incredible stories of each of the three men, but also how they became intertwined to create a new industry that truly changed the world.


Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

Before Edison, Maxwell and Tesla, someone had to discover the basic principles that led to their inventions. That was largely accomplished by two men, Michael Faraday, who invented the electric motor and dynamo and James Clerk Maxwell, whose equations formed our basic understanding of electromagnetism.

The influence of both men went far beyond their own discoveries. Faraday, besides being a legendary scientist, was also a top rate showman. His famous Christmas lecture series at the Royal Institution was the “TED talks” of its time and continues to delight audiences to this day. Maxwell’s theories virtually created modern physics and led directly to Einstein’s discoveries.


I Invented The Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford by Richard Snow

Henry Ford is one of the most important — and in some ways the most complicated — figures of the 20th century. He didn’t invent the automobile, but he did, in large part, create the automobile industry. His development and perfection of the assembly line made possible the mass production that, as this book’s title suggests, led to the modern age.

Much has been written about Henry Ford, but this book, by veteran historian Richard Snow, is probably the best I have read.


The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM

When Peter Drucker first met IBM’s visionary CEO, Thomas J. Watson, he was somewhat taken aback. “He began talking about something called data processing,” Drucker recalled, “and it made absolutely no sense to me. I took it back and told my editor, and he said that Watson was a nut, and threw the interview away.”

Much as Henry Ford shaped the first half of the 20th century, Tom Watson shaped the second half and technology reporter Kevin Maney does a masterful job of telling his story. If you want to understand how the technology industry came to be what it is today, this is a book you should definitely read.


Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

I read every Walter Isaacson book almost as soon as it is published. His biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs and, most recently, Leonardo Da Vinci are absolutely top-notch. Yet his book about Einstein is still my favorite.

So that’s my reading list for this summer. I hope you see something that you liked. If you have a favorite book about a great innovator you’d like to tell me about, please let me know in the comments.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

Image: Pixabay

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