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April 2024
4min read

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.

Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action

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.

Edison: A Biography

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 (Edison: Inventing the Century, by Neil Baldwin; Edison’s Electric Light: Biography of an Invention, by Robert Friedel and Paul Israel; A Streak of Luck, by Robert Conot); and a well-researched assessment of Edison as a business innovator by Andre Millard, Edison and the Business of Innovation. Matthew Josephson’s Edison: A Biography, first published by McGraw-Hill, was completed decades before Edison’s papers were collected, but his book should be read first. It has staying power as a comprehensive and highly readable biography, affectionate but not uncritical about the Edison mythology.

American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970

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.

Only the Paranoid Survive

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 Swimming Across, which should be read before my choice in the management of innovation, Only the Paranoid Survive. Grove’s take-no-prisoners management style at Intel has drawn a lot of attention, but what is fascinating is the playing out of his realization that it is no use innovating once; you have to keep doing it. Facing formidable competition in the memory business, Intel risked giving up its founding technology to concentrate on microprocessors and built an even bigger business. One of the most important and forceful books on the dynamics of innovation (rather than invention).

The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams

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.

Oliver Evans: A Chronicle of Early American Engineering

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.

Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs: Towards a Theory of Sociotechnical Change

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.

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