Thursday, September 24, 2015

Weightman, Eureka

“All modern inventions have an ancient history.” Thus begins Gavin Weightman’s Eureka: How Inventions Happen (Yale University Press, 2015). But, he adds, “what is striking” is that “the inventor who makes the breakthrough is invariably outside the mainstream of existing industry and technology.”

Weightman focuses on five familiar technologies: the airplane, television, bar code, personal computer, and cell phone.

Some of these stories are better known than others. Most people know a great deal, for instance, about the Wright brothers, and if you want to know even more, you now have David McCullough’s best-selling (though, to me, disappointing) biography.

But how many people know about the birth of the bar code? Joe Woodland isn’t exactly a household name, and his 1949 solution to the problem of a distraught supermarket manager didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Without scanner technology and microcomputers the bar code was just a pipedream. Moreover, it had to be approved by a committee, the Symbol Selection Committee, made up of representatives of major supermarket chains and grocery manufacturers. Not until July 1974 was the first true UPC scanned in a supermarket—on a ten-pack of Wrigley’s gum.

Weightman’s book is a journey through the history of invention, some obvious precursors of the technologies on which we rely today, others more surprising steps along the way. To take but a single example: Alois Senefelder’s invention of lithography (one of those “mother of necessity” inventions because he needed a way to print his plays and didn’t have the money to buy presses and type). “And,” Weightman continues, “Senefelder’s discovery did more than revolutionise the art of printing: it inspired the creation of an entirely new way of copying images which in its early days went by the name of heliography” and, later, the Daguerrotype. Fast forward, we arrive at the technique of using photography to print circuits.

Eureka is of necessity a series of tangled stories. It isn’t guided by any overarching hypothesis about the history of science and technology (except that one thing leads to another), so the stories aren’t designed to illustrate a point. That makes them all the more enjoyable.

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