​Walter Isaacson on the traits of "Innovators"

Walter Isaacson on the traits of technology's... 08:16

Many of the most important dreamers and doers of our high-tech age are finally getting the recognition they deserve, thanks to a writer who makes spotting genius his business. Rita Braver has been watching him at work:

It's the San Francisco Techcrunch "Disrupt" conference, showcasing the latest digital products

And just when you're thinking, "Everyone looks so young," you catch up with a silver-haired fellow who knows just what to watch for:

"Instead of looking at a product, I tend to look at the people behind it and say, 'Are they gonna be able to innovate, and change when their original plan doesn't work?'" said Walter Isaacson.

Simon & Schuster

Isaacson has spent years studying what it takes to make in the Internet era. His biography of Steve Jobs was the top-selling book of 2011.

This month, he's out with "The Innovators," published by CBS's Simon and Schuster. Already nominated for a National Book Award, it's the story of how a group of visionaries -- many of them unsung -- created the computer and Internet revolution.

What made them succeed? What traits did it take? "I wanted to give real, concrete storytelling meaning to, 'What does it mean to be an innovator?'" said Isaacson.

Case in point: Ev Williams, a college dropout, who's a creator of both Blogger.com (the first program making it easy to blog) and Twitter.

Today, with his net worth estimated at $3 billion, he says he wasn't sure that either project would take off.

"You can look back and say, 'Yes, I knew exactly that the world needed this," said Williams. "But it's really a process of discovery, I think. It's like you're exploring, and you're going by your gut."

Isaacson says the genius of people like Williams is that they see things in ways that the rest of us can't: "They take all the little things that are there, the building blocks that have already been created, and they do something creative and imaginative," he said.

You might be surprised to learn one of the pioneers Isaacson credits with first imagining what a computer might do was a woman, born in the early 19th century.

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, lived from 1815 to 1852, dying at the age of 36. The daughter of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, she was a mathematician who was intrigued by the use of punch cards, which had recently been introduced to program automatic looms. She prophesied that similar devices could also be used for complex math problems, and much more.

"They could even compose music, they can make art, they could, of course, do calculations with numbers," said Isaacson. "And so by envisioning how those cards could be used on a computer, she says, 'A computer can be general purpose; it doesn't just have to be for numbers.'"