If ever I could time travel and got stuck in the past, I think this would be one book I would be carrying in my bag for all the useful information it carries. James Wei does, as his book title points out, looks at ‘Great Inventions That Changed The World’. This is a densely written book but sensibly broken up to make it easier to absorb. Even the box articles are neatly placed so they don’t appear in the middle of paragraphs. There are also diagrams and equations showing the principles of how many of these inventions work and it would only have been another step to show how to make something like a steam engine itself.
Wei also places inventions in perspective, looking at how they affected the world economy and how hi-tech countries delegate low-tech work to third world countries, although I wish he’d given some thought as to how that will balance out in the long run when the order will turn around in the opposite direction. Not that I would discourage the growth of third world countries, just that such delegation is going to remove the knowledge and skill talent base from our own countries. A disaster waiting to happen.
If you thought the earliest significant inventions were something mechanical then think again. Wei points out four thousand years ago in Egypt that Imhotet and Yu came up with a working irrigation operation to water their crops. Inventors like Archimedes practically did their creations as a side-line to their normal jobs. A lot of inventions and discoveries, like penicillin, were by accident and it also took some years before they were available to the public, mostly because of the time it took to refine the manufacturing process. Inventing is one thing, but it takes some time to reach public consumption and these days, they are also burdened by all sorts of regulations, so there are no overnight use of discoveries. However, when you consider so many discoveries have left their own burden, perhaps that’s understandable. Thomas Midgley picked chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) for refrigerator coolant because it was non-flammable and non-poisonous but hadn’t anticipated the effect on the atmosphere.
When it comes to turning metals into something with strength, I did wonder why Wei never wondered about steel. A few years ago on a different project, I decided that adding carbon to molten iron had to have been a fluke originally before it was refined by quantity. I mean, would you have seen mixing the two soft materials together as means to harden them? Unlike our knowledge of crystal lattices these days, that wouldn’t have been known back then. Considering that coal was used to molten iron, it would have been evitable that the two materials would have mixed and someone realised the pig iron was actually a lot harder than usual.
There are a lots of things that I didn’t know before. Take Friz Haber. Apart from co-inventing with Carl Bosch a way to make ammonia cheaply, he was largely responsible for the mustard gas used in World War One by the Germans and after that war was working on the means to extract gold from seawater to sort out his country’s debt. Ironically, because he was a Jew, he had to flee Germany when Hitler came to power. Although he died before WW2, I think we were lucky regarding the Nazi racism moving on without him.
With transportation, the heat generated by various materials shows why petrol was the propellant of choice for powering cars. I also learnt far more about the choice of sails for getting speed with yachts.
If you ever wondered how the order of dashes and dots were chosen for Morse Code, Wei explains that the most used letters were given the least number of them. Although he doesn’t do the comparison, I can see a parallel to the old-fashioned typewriter QUERTY keyboard arranged so pressing the keys didn’t make their corresponding type-bar stick. Just in case you thought computers were left out, Wei explains the ASCII code that corresponds to the letters, numerics and punctuation that we take for granted when typing, before proceeding to how picture information is stored in different formats.
Nothing is left untouched. From how atomic bombs are made to leisure pursuits, Lei looks at everything and should leave you in awe as to how in debt each of you are to unknown and accredited inventors and discoverers.
If there is something that was a concern then it was the number of times Wei resorted to early mythology, especially that of Gilgamesh from Greek legends, as an early example of progress before the more recognised human endeavours.
This isn’t just a book of inventions but also the history of how it changed the world so you also have this incredible history of the world here as well. If you’re creating a reality for any genre, then this is essential reading because you’ll realise a lot of things weren’t just there but was built upon. If you just want to be informed, then you will come away from this book with a formidable amount of knowledge. This is a book worthy of everyone’s attention.
(pub: Wiley. 345 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £33.50 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-470-76817-4)
check out website: www.wiley.com