Friday, December 23, 2016

Eurekaaargh! (Adam Hart-Davis)

Eurekaaargh!: A Spectacular Collection of Inventions That Nearly Worked
Adam Hart-Davis
Michael O'Mara Books Limited
Nonfiction, Science
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Steam engines, powered flight, flush toilets... all these revolutionary inventions helped create the modern world of wonders we live in. But for every patent that changes civilization, countless more fall into quiet obscurity. Some had admirable ambitions but weak execution. Some were simply ahead of their time, requiring manufacturing capabilities or infrastructure that didn't exist yet. And some were seemingly entirely fanciful from the beginning, ideas that could never work beyond the patent application description. The author examines a range of lost ideas and the people who created them, from the first inflatable tires and "difference engine" computer to impractical swimming devices and flying machines more akin to rocks than eagles.

REVIEW: Everyone loves those old stock footage clips of failed flying devices and other fanciful creations by inventors more skilled in imagination than engineering (or basic practicality). Funny as they are to modern eyes, though, the quest to innovate and explore and push scientific boundaries is what ultimately led to many things we take for granted; it's a given that every step forward involves innumerable sidesteps and missteps. Hart-Davis combed the patent archives and history books for the unusual, the innovative, and otherwise unique. However, this book can't quite seem to find a tone. Early entries, such as umbrella-like hand attachments for swimming (an attempt to improve the power of each forward stroke that might've looked good on paper but failed in practice), are light and amusing as the author points out flaws in the designs and other reasons they faded into obscurity. Other entries, particularly those that were ahead of their times or represented moments when today's technology might easily have skewed in another direction, come closer to history lessons than anything else. Despite the subtitle, several of these inventions did indeed work. They were simply created before sufficient infrastructure (manufacturing ability, access to proper materials, market demand, etc.) allowed them to succeed. A few - such as a failed attempt to create a mathematical model for human thought in the early 1800's - found success later on (modern computers depend on Boolean algebra, the results of those speculations.) I'm not sure they really belonged in the same book as impractical bicycle modifications or attempts at indoor golf games. The book also becomes word-heavy and descriptive for an otherwise light read; I would've preferred more illustrations or diagrams of the inventions described, as it was sometimes hard to visualize what he was talking about, particularly amid webs of names and machinery parts. Some of these inventions the author seems to have tested, while others are simply speculated on based on the patent descriptions. It's not a bad book, but it didn't seem to know quite what it wanted to do with the broad subject it chose to explore, tending to wander.

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