Skip to main content

The Telephone Gambit – Seth Shulman ****

If there’s one thing that common knowledge is particularly poor on, it’s who invented what. Edison, for instance, only shared joint honours on the light bulb, and didn’t invent the gramophone (yes, he did invent the phonograph, using a cylinder, but not the gramophone). But we all know Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone… didn’t he?
Seth Shulman’s book sets out to explore who really did invent it, and why after all these years, Bell still has the laurels. While Bell did win the patent battles (unlike Edison over the light bulb), there was already plenty of evidence back in the nineteenth century that Bell wasn’t the first to the telephone, and wasn’t even the first to submit his patent – but skulduggery and commercial manipulation seems to have triumphed.
It’s a good story, and well told here. It’s something of a meta history – rather than plunge us into Bell’s time, Shulman tells us the story of his own discovery of a key similarity between the diagram in Bell’s notebook and the (at the time supposedly secret) drawings of his competitor, already lodged with the patent office. It’s very much a story of detection and unweaving the tangled record, rather than straight history. I found this very interesting, though there is a slight danger of giving us too much archival content and not enough well-crafted narrative.
If you thought you knew the story of the telephone, think again. Seth Shulman will change you view (reluctantly, I suspect – Bell is something of a hero figure) on what really happened back in the 1870s.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been…

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…