Five Best Books on Inventions

Eureka! William Rosen hails these books about inventions

1. Longitude

By Dava Sobel
Walker, 1995

The story of the first marine chronometer, invented by the self-taught British clockmaker John Harrison, had a remarkable number of dramatic elements. Thanks to the Longitude Act of 1714, the protagonist’s goal—a £20,000 prize for a method of determining longitude to within 30 nautical miles—could not have been clearer. Even more theatrically, Harrison was a legitimate “lone genius,” who spent 19 solitary years on a single version of a clock accurate enough to compare local noon at sea with noon back home. And, in the devious Nevil Maskelyne, astronomer royal and champion of a competing method of calculating longitude, the story had a perfect villain. To this raw material Dava Sobel added a sculptor’s sense for the physicality of things—for the self-lubricating gears that Harrison carved from close-grained wood—and enough poetic imagination to describe H-1, Harrison’s first chronometer, as “a model ship, escaped from its bottle, afloat on the sea of time.”

2. The Making of the Atomic Bomb

By Richard Rhodes
Simon & Schuster, 1986

Richard Rhodes’s story of the birth of the nuclear age is an epic that, in terms of scientific discovery, unfolds in the blink of an eye—Hiroshima, after all, was destroyed just 34 years after the discovery of the atomic nucleus. His cast of characters is a virtual Who’s Who of 20th-century physics, from Albert Einstein to J. Robert Oppenheimer, but one that also gives star turns to brilliant and dogged engineers like Vannevar Bush and Gen. Leslie Groves. Rhodes pays his readers the compliment of assuming that they are familiar enough with the story to foresee critical moments. We know, for instance, before Glenn Seaborg himself, that Seaborg will name element 94 (“this speck of matter God had not welcomed at the Creation,” Rhodes writes) for the Roman god of the dead: plutonium.

3. To Conquer the Air

By James Tobin
Free Press, 2003

The story of the onetime bicycle-shop owners from Dayton, Ohio (in 1900, America’s per capita patent leader), is simultaneously a brilliant panorama of early 20th-century America and an unforgettable portrait of Wilbur Wright. Both Wilbur and his brother Orville were exemplars of grace under pressure, showing high intelligence, modesty and determination without foolhardiness—all the while competing against everyone from Alexander Graham Bell to the motorcycle-racing champion Glenn Curtiss to be the first aloft. But Wilbur is clearly the star. His decision to master airborne stability and balance before power—to create the optimal wing and let the engine take care of itself—gives James Tobin’s tale an enormously satisfying structure, as well as an entirely apt metaphor for Wilbur Wright’s life.

4. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed

By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973

In the late 1960s, an unlikely team of ex-Navy airship specialists, model builders, aeronautics professors and the pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Trenton, N.J., who instigated it all, set out to build a new airborne means of transporting heavy freight. What they envisioned was a helium-filled hybrid of an airplane and a rigid airship. What they created was the Aereon 26, the triangular oblate “pumpkin seed” of the title of John McPhee’s book, which succeeds as a narrative despite the ultimate failure of the craft’s design. McPhee’s genius is for understanding the eccentricity of human motivation as he depicts, with an unerring eye for the telling detail, characters toiling to revive the world of lighter-than-air flight.

5. The Soul of a New Machine

By Tracy Kidder
Little, Brown, 1981

The holy grail for Tom West and his team of computer engineers was a machine that was smaller and nimbler than a mainframe but still able to process 32 bits of information: a superminicomputer. Tracy Kidder chronicled their painstaking quest in one of the more improbable best sellers ever. (A book about writing software code?) But even now “The Soul of a New Machine” is capable of inducing in readers the same sleepless nights that the project demanded of the twentysomething geeks who designed and built the machine they dubbed the Eagle. “The real game is pinball,” West tells them. “You win one game, you get to play another; you build this machine, you get to build another.”

Mr. Rosen is the author of “The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.”


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