Groundbreaking Inventions in Information and Communication Technology – Book Review By Pallavi Ghosh

Our latest publication, “Groundbreaking Inventions in Information and Communication Technology” by V. Rajaraman is an informative and enjoyable read. The book is targeted towards those with a pre-university education and does not require readers to have any prior knowledge on the subject. It aims to provide an overview and historical background of various technological inventions in ICT (Information and Communication Technology) from 1957 to-date.

Rajaraman explains 15 Groundbreaking Inventions in our history, using a uniform and consistent format, divided into 3 categories in accordance with the timeline within which they were created– ‘Between 1957 and 1974’, ‘Between 1975 and 1984’, and ‘Between 1985 and 2011’. Further, each groundbreaking invention is delineated through 2 subheadings: 1) What is the invention? ; 2) Why is it a groundbreaking invention? Alongside this, there are loads of interesting fact boxes and relevant information about the invention, organised in separate sections to educate the

The relevance of the inventions is illustrated as we move through them serially,  in the order in   which they were invented, from  FORTRAN, Integrated Circuits, Relational Database Management Systems (RDBMS), Local Area Network (LAN), Personal Computers, Public Key Cryptography, Computer Graphics, The Internet, Global Positioning System (GPS), World Wide Web, Search Engines, Digitisation and compression of multimedia, Mobile Computers, and Cloud Computing to Deep Learning. Each of these technical terms are broken down and simplified for the benefit of the non-expert enthusiast. Moreover, the technical concepts related to these inventions are explained in a very simple and expressive language so that they are uncomplicated and fun to read.

In the first introductory chapter, Rajaraman explains his reasons for creating this collection of 15 groundbreaking inventions. The author explains, “ICT has spawned a number of new industries that employ millions of people.” He elaborates upon the relevance of ICT and elucidates why it is important for all to have knowledge on the subject. Further, the author provides interesting facts about the history of ICT and introduced readers with ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer, built in 1946 and UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer), the first commercial computer made available in 1951. The author contends that the first groundbreaking invention in ICT was FORTRAN, a high-level programming language, created in 1957, which enabled scientists and engineers to use computers to solve complex problems easily.  The chapter contains countless fascinating fun facts.

The subsection “What is a Groundbreaking Invention?” is particularly riveting since it clarifies the concept of a Groundbreaking Invention and defines the term citing authentic sources.

Further, the author lists 8 criteria to classify advancement in ICT as a “Groundbreaking Invention”. These are:

  1. “The idea should be novel ”
  2. “It should fulfil a need ”
  3. “It should improve our  productivity”
  4. “It should change the way in which computing is done and computers are used ”
  5. “It should lead to  innovations”
  6. “The invention must have a long life and be continuously used and not be transient ”
  7. “It should create new industries that lead to further innovations and may, as a consequence, disrupt some old industries”
  8. “It should transform the way we live and thereby result in societal changes.”

Throughout the book these 8 criteria are used to explain why each of the 15 chosen innovations can be considered groundbreaking. This introduction also features a chronological list of the 15 groundbreaking inventions in ICT from 1957 – 2011.

In the second chapter, “The First Four Inventions”, the author explains FORTRAN, Integrated Circuits, RDBMS, and LAN. The author provides background information about each invention, choosing to tell stories which are interesting and memorable. A fun fact included in this chapter is: John Backus, the inventor of FORTRAN, formed a group of diverse professionals (engineers, scientists, and programmers) to help write the program. For FORTRAN, out of the 8 aforementioned criteria, I found the final criteria, “Societal Impact” to be an excellent measure of its status as a Groundbreaking Invention. The author argues that the code has deeply affected the society we live in.

On Integrated Circuits, the author notes that although the advent of transistors revolutionised electronics, it was soon to be found that building complex circuits with them was not as easy as it seemed. He then provides a detailed explanation of the ideas and experiments which led to the creation of the first integrated circuit. The technical concepts to be used alongside complex terms are written in a simple language and seem to flow into the reader’s mind. The author makes the readers feel as if they are reading a simple story rather than a book full of complex terms. The ‘fact boxes’, included in relevant topics, present thought-provoking information. For example, the section features box items like “How Does a Transistor Function as a Switch” and “How are Integrated Circuits Fabricated?” in a simple and easily understandable explanation blended with excellent diagrams. Next, the author gives reasons for why Integrated Circuits are a groundbreaking invention as per his aforementioned 8 criteria. A noteworthy point amongst these eight is that the invention “Leads to the start of a new industry” — paving the way for the industry of silicon devices and circuits, employing half a billion people worldwide. Later, in a similar format and under the same section headings the author explains RDBMS and LAN, illustrating why these inventions are, in fact, “groundbreaking”.

In the third chapter, the author describes “The Next Five Inventions.” These are: Personal Computer (PC), Public Key Encryption, Computer Graphics, Internet, and GPS. Included in this chapter is a noteworthy box – a biography of Gary Kildall who is best known as the designer of the first operating system for Personal Computers. The book is peppered with such fact boxes which makes the experience of reading about the various technical concepts more interesting. Chapter 3 also contains some compelling and inspiring biographies, such as the biographies of computer wizards Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are written concisely and eloquently, making them more enjoyable to read than the information available online. Another noteworthy section in this chapter is the one on the Apple I, Apple II, and its subsequent models. These were the first computers to feature a keyboard, power supply, and display in their design. These computers also have a memorable name, Steve Jobs, attached to them.

As the author explains why the relevance and historical background of the Internet makes it a Groundbreaking Invention, a very riveting detail in the history of the Internet is mentioned. The author explains the historical relevance of the internet by divulging that the internet was originally created as a defence weapon for the US Department of Defence (DoD). The author states, “J.C.R Licklider was convinced that a country-wide communications network to connect computers would be essential for the defence of the USA.”

Amongst the reasons for why the internet is a groundbreaking invention, the most noteworthy are: 1) It leads to innovations: the internet has provided the format using which further inventions such as Search Engines, the World Wide Web, Video on Demand, Internet Radio, and Cloud Computing have emerged ; 2) Leads to the start of new industries: for example, e-commerce firms such as Flipkart, Search engine companies such as Google, and social networking companies such as Facebook ; 3) Societal Changes: the ability to instantly network with a large number of people online to communicate, consume information, buy, and sell has changed the way our society functions.

Another notable section in this chapter is the one on GPS where the author provides the readers with some interesting facts. For example, the author states “Originally, GPS was intended only for the use of the defence forces of the USA.’ He informs us that GPS is still controlled by the US Department of Defence. He goes on to explain the political effects of this circumstance. This section on the geopolitical effects of the USA’s control on GPS is truly very compelling.

In the final chapter, the author discusses the last six inventions: World Wide Web, Search Engine, Digitization and Compression, Mobile Computing, Cloud Computing, and Deep Learning. He uses the same organised format and easy to read language in this final chapter for clear understanding.

Overall, what I found to be the best feature of this book is the format using which it is organised. The author presents his explanations of and relevant information on 15 groundbreaking inventions in a uniform format which consists of congruously repeating sections with consistent headings for each invention. Personally, the section I found most enjoyable in each chapter was the part where the author explains ‘Why’ – “Why is this invention a groundbreaking invention in ICT?”. This is since it is quite compelling to learn about why the author chose to write about these inventions in the first place. It is eye-opening to know that certain advancements in ICT can be set apart from others and called a “groundbreaking invention”.

Arguably, the author does a commendable job at achieving what he set out to do. He explains the groundbreaking inventions in a simple style to allow anyone with a pre-university education to understand and appreciate how ICT has been developed.

Readers will gain a deep understanding of 15 groundbreaking inventions in ICT from 1957 to-date and will find that this book is not only informative but also an enjoyable read.

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