Skip to main content

The Electronics Revolution - J. B. Williams ***

If I'm honest, The Electronics Revolution was a lot better than I thought it would be. it has 27 topic-based chapters plus intro and conclusion, covering the development of electronic technology - some of it where electronics was not always involved - in everything from radio and TV to recorded music and computing. There is a real danger with this kind of format that you end up with chapter after chapter with very little substance, simply recounting examples of a particular application. Just occasionally, there is a touch of this - for example in dealing with the Millennium bug. However, mostly what we get is much better.

What is impressive about the way that J. B. Williams (we are told nothing concerning the author, not even a first name) covers these topics is the detail of the early history that he or she digs out. So, for example, I thought I knew a fair amount about the origins of thermionic valves/vacuum tubes, but I hadn't seen before the story of Edison accidentally inventing the diode but not realising what he had done.

This kind of 'ooh, that's interesting' bit happens regularly, particularly in the early parts of the history of each technology. Whether it's Berliner developing the gramophone or the various contributors to the development of integrated circuits, Williams fills in snippets of detail that you don't often see. The book was also particularly interesting with a transatlantic viewpoint, as he/she frequently produces plots of the take-up of various technologies comparing the UK and the US - while in some cases the US has the obvious lead, in others it lagged significantly behind, often due to entrenched business interests.

The book is copyrighted 2017, but I do wonder if the text was written a few years earlier, as some later developments are missing. The section on video recording, for example, ends with DVDs and Blu-ray without mentioning PVRs... or for that matter, the way streaming has made recording far less necessary (this is also the case in the recorded music section).

The author's personality comes through occasionally in chapters that touch on societal impacts. What we get is a slightly old-fashioned and sceptical view. Perhaps the oddest of these chapters is one on 'Pop music: youth culture in the 1950s and 1960s' which feels as if it's written by someone who was already past their youth by that time. But the strongest feeling comes through at the end of the banking chapter (one of the examples where the US has lagged way behind). On internet banking we are told 'Some younger people took to this with enthusiasm but the growth of internet banking was slow.' Hardly the picture now. Almost all electronic contributions to banking are described as if they purely benefit the banks and aren't useful to the customers, being a sort of conspiracy to distance the consumer from actual money so they would borrow more. Once again, this section feels like it was written a while ago - there's no mention of contactless payments or pay-by-phone.

All in all, I felt I got a lot from this book, despite the author's foibles. I don't think it quite makes it as a general interest book, hence the 3 star rating, but if, like me, you have an interest in the early history of electronic technology, it's well worth getting hold of a copy.

Paperback:  


Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…