kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, history
In 1879 Edison and his helpers produced a carbon-filament light bulb that stayed lit for many hours without burning out. This wasn't the invention of the light bulb; people had been making them for fifty years. But this was the first practical one, with a stronger filament and a better vacuum, plus a few other innovations, that formed the basis for a lighting system which was Edison's real invention.
When Philo Farnsworth got an all-electronic television system working, he was 20; it was 1926. He'd been working on it since he was fifteen and was inspired by the parallel furrows in a field he was plowing. Earlier that same year, John Baird had demonstrated a mechanical system for dissecting and reassembling an image, which he had been working at for more than ten years. Which one invented television?
Rick Beyer's fourth "Never Told" book, The Greatest Science Stories Never Told: 100 Tales of Invention and Discovery to Astonish, Bewilder, & Stupefy, surveys the light bulb story well, but mentions only Farnsworth in connection with TV. These stories are somewhat variable in the "never told" category: many folks know the Archimedes-in-the-bath story, or that Hans Lippershey invented the telescope that Galileo used to revolutionize astronomy. Hardly anyone knows of the powered wagons one might call automobiles that were built in Paris in 1769 and Philadelphia in 1805 (It took another 100 years for the idea to catch on).
The stories in this book introduce us to the men and women who pioneered ideas ranging from the digital computer (1822, Babbage and Lady Lovelace) to the Zipper (1893, W. Judson), from the walkie-talkie (1938, Al Gross AKA Veeblefetzer) to the computer mouse (1968, D. Englebart). And who really invented the Internet? Lotsa people, but central to the action was Len Kleinrock, who installed the first server in 1969 and had it talking to a colleague in Stanford by October that year. At that time computers were still too large to see over (not really; the office-desk-sized IBM 1130 was introduced in 1965—this from my own knowledge, not the book).
The book is a fast read; each essay is about a half page, accompanied by a few pertinent pictures, some with extended captions. It is also a fun read. At first, I was pitting my wits against it ("I knew that…and I knew that…Ooh, surprise!) but soon I simply reveled in the delight of learning about many little-known inventors and innovators.
One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons has Lucy telling Linus a number of truly off-the-wall "explanations" of nature, when another girl asks what she's doing. "Explaining the little-known facts of nature," she says. When the girl asks her, "Then how do you know them?", Lucy replies, sotto voce, "I make 'em up." The book's bibliography makes it clear that Rick Beyer didn't have to make anything up!