- Historic Sites
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
The literature pants harder and harder to keep up with the dazof the innovations, but with a gun to my head this for the general reader looking for a short list of Jt are technically sophisticated yet comprehensible and the sense of being highly readable.
by James Thomas Flexner (1944; Fordham). The biographer of George Washington thought he would write a short essay about the “inventor” of the steamboat and found himself led into an irresistibly intriguing historical investigation, beginning with a steamboat inventor fleeing from an Indian war party and many other extraordinary individuals shouldering their way into his story in contention for the honor. There are John Fitch, the crazy frontiersman; James Rumsey, the suave Southerner; William Symington, the Scottish engineer; John Stevens, the arrogant New Jersey aristocrat; and the ineffable and legendary Robert Fulton. Flexner explains the mechanics but is especially good relating the mechanics to the personalities and setting them in the context of a pre-industrial America.
by Matthew Josephson (1959; Wiley). Edison may have missed the implications of the vacuum tube, but for all the revisionism there has been about his accomplishments, he remains a Promethean figure, not least for inventing a method of inventing. There are a number of very strong biographies (
by Thomas P. Hughes (1989; University of Chicago). The erudite Hughes more or less single-handedly demolished the notion of invention as a single eureka moment. His survey is comprehensive, scholarly, and entertaining.
by Andrew S. Grove (1996; Doubleday). The story of the schoolboy Andris Grof escaping the Nazis and the Holocaust and then surviving through the dark years of postwar Communist repression has been inspiringly told in his memoir
by David A. Kaplan (1999; Perennial). Probably the best overall general survey of the personalities behind the debut of the digital age—perceptive in its analysis, lucid on the technology, vivid in its characterizations of the technocrats (among them Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang, Jim Clark, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison), and written with a wit very rare for the subject.
by Greville and Dorothy Bathe (1935; Ayer Company Publishers; out of print). Oliver Evans was the first inventor and innovator at the birth of the American Republic and has never had his proper due. He invented and manufactured the first American high-pressure steam engine—and the first automated production (waterpower in a flour mill). The steamboats on the Mississippi that opened up the West had their origin in Evans’s fertile brain at a time when there was no money for invention and the temper of the times preferred the tranquillity of country life.