Skip to main content

Eureka: How Invention Happens - Gavin Weightman ***




Updated for paperback version
There's an interesting point made by Gavin Weightman in Eureka - the way that many inventions were the brainchild of an amateur, a tinkerer, who managed to get the invention going pretty badly, before it was then picked up elsewhere, typically by a larger organization which carried it forward to become a commercial or practical product. It's certainly true of the five examples he focusses on in the book.

These are powered flight, television, the barcode, the PC and the mobile phone (cellphone). In each case, Weightman gives us a long section in which he introduces that individual (or small team) of amateurs, plunges back into their historical antecedents - because invention doesn't come from nowhere, there is plenty of groundwork that precedes it - and then takes us through the detailed work of the amateurs and the way that the invention was then taken up and commercialised.

For me, the two best sections were the ones on TV and the barcode, in part because I'd read more detailed books on the other topics. The TV section is interesting because it gives the best balance between Baird and Farnsworth I've seen. In my youth (in the UK) John Logie Baird was the only name you ever heard when it came to inventing the television, while more recently the magnificently named Philo T. Farnsworth has taken centre stage (because unlike Baird, his TV concept was not a dead-end mechanical approach), but Weightman puts both in their rightful positions. 

The barcode section was particularly interesting because it's something I've never read about, and it's easy to overlook the barcode as an invention, even though it plays a major role every time we go shopping, not to mention its importance in inventory and stock control. It was fascinating to learn that it was inspired by Morse code. My only real criticism of this chapter is the way that it concentrates solely on the hardware, where the development of the software was equally crucial in the story.

These are, without doubt, interesting stories, but the reason I haven't given the book a higher star rating is that it's not a great read. The historical sections get rather dull and over-detailed (this is particularly the case in the flight section, not helped by jumping around wildly chronologically in a way that really doesn't help the reader). I also think that the central thesis that inventions come from isolated amateurs, which the author presents as if it's a new observation, would have been better if he had read more around the study of creativity and innovation. It's an observation dating back for decades that in the creative field ideas come from individuals, while development tends to come from teams, which is why in part there was a strong historical tendency for the more individual-oriented UK of the early to mid 20th Century to come up with inventions, while the US, where businesses tended to have a stronger team approach, was better at developing those inventions to finished products.

The other problem with the thesis is selectivity. It's certainly true that these inventions were the work of amateurs, but it's not true of, say, the laser and a whole host of modern inventions where the technology level is often too high for amateurs to get anywhere in a garage lab. An interesting set of stories, then, but could have been told better and the central thesis could do with some expansion and extra sophistication. 

Paperback:  

Kindle:  

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Pocket Einstein: 10 Short Lessons in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics - Peter Bentley ****

Another handsome little hardback in the '10 short lessons' format that manages to pack in a surprising amount of information. AI is a subject where it's easy to get carried away with enthusiasm for the wonders of the subject, so we end up with much marvelling about too little substance - a trait that has dogged the AI profession leading a couple of 'winters' where it over-promised and under-delivered. Thankfully, Peter Bentley largely avoids this trap. Although he is certainly broadly positive about the topic, he does make some of the shortcomings clear.

The book is genuinely interesting and carries the reader along with a light touch that never betrays the author's academic background - it is a heartfelt compliment that this is a book by a professor that feels like it was written by a science writer. We get a good mix of the history with a brief explanation of how the technology works and a broad exploration of applications, both what has already been achieved …

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…