Jan 072007

Book Short: Unsung Heroes

Book Short:  Unsung Heroes

If you like “entrepreneurship by analogy” books, you’ll like The Innovators:  The Engineering Pioneers Who Made America Modern, by David Billington.  I have to admit some bias here — Professor Billington was my favorite teacher and senior thesis advisor at Princeton (I almost majored in civil engineering because of him), and this book is one of a number he’s written that are outgrowths of his most popular courses at Princeton.  And while there’s no substitute for the length or energy of his lectures, the book works.

The book is basically a person-focused engineering history of America from 1776-1883.  Billington talks about four classes of engineering product:  public structures (mostly bridges), machines that produced power, networks like the railroads and telegraphs, and processes like steel manufacturing.

His approach is to acknowledge that the Americans innovators couldn’t do much without the right context:  learnings from their counterparts in Britain, a supportive government here at home, and abundant raw materials and capital.  But with that backdrop in place, Billington tells the tale of a number of the inventions that built our modern society with a focus on the engineers who got things right.  While some of them are familiar names (Morse, Edison), many are not (Thomas Telford, J. Edgar Thomson, Joseph Henry).

Sound familiar?  It feels at many point in the book that you could insert some different names and dates and be reading a history of the Internet or information age.  And as with the Industrial Revolution, while many of the innovators in our world today are known (Bezos, Yang, Brin/Page), there are probably an equal number who are unsung heroes — either software engineers or even buisness model pioneers who haven’t sought or won’t end up in the spotlight even though their contributions to society or to their companies are giant.  I know there are a number of unsung heroes in our own engineering department at Return Path — people who aren’t market facing and who never get quoted in press releases, but who really make a difference in how the company works and how competitive we are.  This book celebrates those people as much as it does the entrepreneurs you’ve heard of.

Warning, there are lots of pages which are full of mathematical formulas, which may or may not be interesting to you, but the book still holds together 100% if you skip over them.

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