Walter Isaacson reveals subject of next biographyDecember 16, 2011: 8:56 AM ET
After Franklin, Einstein and Jobs, the best-selling biographer is setting his sights on a lesser known -- yet pioneering -- figure in technology history.
By Richard Nieva, contributor
FORTUNE -- Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein and, most recently, Steve Jobs plans to train his sights next on a lesser known figure in history: the 19th century scientist Ada Lovelace. Isaacson's book on Jobs has been number one on The New York Times best-seller list for 6 weeks and is a runaway global success. (Read an excerpt here.) At an appearance Wednesday night in San Francisco, he said he felt he had earned the right to pick someone less iconic, and pluck her out of obscurity. "I want to give Ada Lovelace her moment in the sun," he said.
The daughter of poet Lord Byron, Lovelace helped the development of the analytical engine -- the first incarnation of a general purpose computer with Charles Babbage, considered the father of the computer. She is credited with inventing the algorithm and pioneering the idea that writing software could make a computer perform different functions. Though not a household name, Lovelace is better known in the computer science world, and is already the subject of older biographies. Her penchant for math came from her mother's desire to make sure Lovelace was nothing like her absent father, according to a biography by author Benjamin Wooley.
Another father-daughter relationship -- his own -- drew Isaacson to the topic in the first place. The author's daughter, a 21-year-old computer science student, introduced her father to the subject after she wrote a high school essay on Lovelace. In part, the new book would be a tribute to his computer-loving daughter, who told him "all biography is essentially autobiography," he said. She has even jokingly psychoanalyzed each of Isaacson's past subject decisions. Like Franklin, she said, Isaacson is a "networking, publisher, yuppie-type." With Einstein, Isaacson was writing about his own father, a "kindly Jewish engineer." And Kissinger? "Oh dad, that was your dark side," Isaacson recalled his daughter telling him.
More broadly, he believes women in technology will be the wave of this century. His premise has already started to unfold, as a few women hold top jobs at the world's most prominent tech companies, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Google VP Marissa Mayer. The tech landscape will only move more in this direction, he said, because women were left out of engineering and science for such a long time. "And when you leave out a large part of the population, things change when they suddenly become a part of it," he said.
Isaacson, a Time magazine writer, and ultimately its managing editor, also served as CNN's chairman. Currently he is the president of the Aspen Institute, a Washington D.C. and Aspen, Colorado-based organization that says it seeks to better society though policy programs and fellowships. Isaacson already is among the most prominent popular historians in the United States. He wrote American Sketches: Great Leaders, Creative Thinkers, and Heroes of a Hurricane (2010), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Kissinger (2005), and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003).
There is one hitch in Isaacson's plan. As of Wednesday night, he hadn't pitched the idea for his Lovelace biography to his editor, the legendary Alice Mayhew of Simon & Schuster, who counts among her authors such other eminent writers as Bob Woodward, Richard Reeves and Robin Wright. Mayhew didn't respond to a request for comment.