Technology

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by Wiebe E. Bijker (1995; MIT). Bijker invites us to look at the social processes that interact with the mystical cerebration behind three inventions: the safety bicycle, plastics, and the fluorescent light bulb. Sounds a bore? Not a bit. Bijker pulls it all together in a fascinating manner, especially in the story of Leo Baekeland, the Belgian chemist who came to settle in America at the turn of the century and gave us plastics. Plastics may have been a joke in The Graduate , but Baekeland’s invention of the first truly synthetic material is as compelling as the film was entertaining.

The Technical Development of Modern Aviation

by Ronald Miller and David Sawers (1970; Praeger; out of print). The hundredth anniversary of the Wright brothers’ achievement stimulated a number of good biographies (notably one by James Tobin in 2003) to supplement the original and thoughtful work of Tom D. Crouch, A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875–1905, but for a more general survey of aviation Miller and Sawers are the authorities, particularly interesting on the collision of technology and politics.

From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States

by David A. Hounshell (1984; Johns Hopkins). Hounshell’s definitive work cuts through a lot of loose generalizations about mass production. For a more personal approach, I commend writings on Henry Ford, notably the exhaustive biography by Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, 1903-2003; Robert Lacey’s Ford: The Men and the Machine; and Roger Burlingame’s short but perennially absorbing Henry Ford: A Great Life in Brief.

Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution

by Victor K. McElheny (2003; Perseus). The epic discovery of the doublehelix structure of DNA, by James Watson and Francis Crick, is one thing. The personality of James Watson is something else again, defining the limits of the adjective colorful. (Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson once dubbed him “the Caligula of biology.”) McElheny is splendidly equipped to relate personality and scientific process. He has been a science reporter and editor for four decades, worked for Watson for several years, and has a rare gift for combining scrupulous scholarship with vivid prose. This unauthorized and utterly candid biography covers Watson’s life from the double helix to the imminent sequencing of the human genome. McElheny is practiced in the art of elucidating the intellectual and emotional lives of great innovators. His previous full-length biography was Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land.