Skip to main content

Eureka: How Invention Happens - Gavin Weightman ***

There's an interesting point made by Gavin Weightman in Eureka - the way that many inventions were the brainchild of an amateur, a tinkerer, who managed to get the invention going pretty badly, before it was then picked up elsewhere, typically by a larger organization which carried it forward to become a commercial or practical product. It's certainly true of the five examples he focusses on in the book.

These are powered flight, television, the barcode, the PC and the mobile phone (cellphone). In each case, Weightman gives us a long section in which he introduces that individual (or small team) of amateurs, plunges back into their historical antecedents - because invention doesn't come from nowhere, there is plenty of groundwork that precedes it - and then takes us through the detailed work of the amateurs and the way that the invention was then taken up and commercialised.

For me, the two best sections were the ones on TV and the barcode, in part because I'd read more detailed books on the other topics. The TV section is interesting because it gives the best balance between Baird and Farnsworth I've seen. In my youth (in the UK) John Logie Baird was the only name you ever heard, while more recently the magnificently named Philo T. Farnsworth has taken centre stage (because unlike Baird, his TV concept was not a dead-end mechanical approach), but Weightman puts both in their rightful positions. 

The barcode section was particularly interesting because it's something I've never read about, and it's easy to overlook the barcode as an invention, even though it plays a part every time we go shopping, not to mention its role in inventory and stock control. It was fascinating to learn that it was inspired by Morse code. My only real criticism of this chapter is the way that it concentrates solely on the hardware, where the development of the software was equally crucial in the story.

These are without doubt interesting stories, but the reason I haven't given the book a higher star rating is that it's not a great read. The historical sections get rather dull and over-detailed (this is particularly the case in the flight section, not helped by jumping around wildly chronologically in a way that really doesn't help the reader. I also think that the central thesis that inventions come from isolated amateurs, which the author presents as if it's a new observation, would have been better if he had read more around the study of creativity and innovation. It's an observation dating back for decades that in the creative field ideas come from individuals, while development tends to come from teams, which is why in part there was a strong historical tendency for the more individual-oriented UK of the early to mid 20th Century to come up with inventions, while the US, where businesses tended to have a stronger team approach, was better at developing those inventions to finished products.

The other problem with the thesis is selectivity. It's certainly true that these inventions were the work of amateurs, but it's not true of, say, the laser and a whole host of modern inventions where the technology level is often too high for amateurs to get anywhere in a garage lab. An interesting set of stories, then, but could have been told better and the central thesis could do with some expansion and extra sophistication. 
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…