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.
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
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,
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,
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