Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Imagine That… The History of Technology Rewritten – Michael Sells ***

Asking the question ‘What if…?’ is a classic approach to creativity and original thinking. As Michael Sells shows, it is also a good way to explore a whole range of subjects, from technology in this book through to the likes of ‘Football Rewritten’ and ‘The History of Music Rewritten.’
What Sells does here is take a number of key events in the history of science and technology where a small change in situation could result in a major difference in outcome. So, we are invited, for instance, to consider what would have happened if Alexander Fleming had cleaned his petri dishes and penicillin was washed down the drain – or if Steve Jobs never visited Xerox PARC at Palo Alto and got the inspiration that would lead to the Mac.
It’s a fascinating approach and Sells brings us ten scenarios including the transistor, Facebook, cats’ eyes (the ones in the road) and the totally wonderful ‘Newspaper Radio’, an idea from the end of the 1930s of broadcasting a facsimile newspaper bringing, as Sells puts it, 24 hour journalism to 1939. Most of the ‘what if?’s did happen, though a couple – like that broadcast newspaper and Tesla’s wilder ideas having enough financial backing – didn’t.
There were a couple of disappointments for me. A minor matter was that the title grated. It would have read much better as ‘Imagine… The History of Technology Rewritten.’ But what was more significant was that very little of the content was ‘What if?’ According to the bumf we are taken on a ‘historical flight of fancy, imagining the consequences if history had gone just that little bit differently’, but in practice the text is almost all about what actually did happen. So, for instance, with Fleming, we get the initial set up of ‘Imagine if he cleans up his dishes’, but then around 90% of the text is a simple description of what actually did happen, with just a few pages on how things would have been if Fleming had got down to scrubbing.
I was also unhappy with the Tesla section, which suggested he would have gone onto far greater things if he had ‘received philanthropic support.’ However there is no evidence that Tesla’s ‘World System’ of ‘free energy’ and broadcast power and information that would span the globe would have worked. It had no scientific basis. Sells comments that ‘Tesla had an unerring habit of being right.’ But this just isn’t true. He was a brilliant engineer, and his work on AC was outstanding – but he showed several times that he had limited understanding of some aspects of physics. For instance, he refused to accept relativity. Not to mention his infamous claim to have a box containing a deadly energy weapon that in fact held a Wheatstone bridge. It’s true that Tesla predicted many things – but that didn’t mean he could make them happen, any more than Roger Bacon could have produced the aeroplanes, cars, television etc. he dreamed up in the thirteenth century if only he had philanthropic support.
So, an excellent concept with some very good entries (my favourites were cats’ eyes and the newspaper radio), but a little patchy and not delivering enough on the ‘what if?’s. Even so it’s a well-priced pocket-sized book and well worth taking a look.
Review by Brian Clegg

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