On December 13, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a major breakthrough in cold fusion technology. I don’t pretend to understand all the details, but I know there’s a lot of excitement over the possibility for a clean energy future. This seems like an opportune time to focus on books about inventors and inventions.
Humans are by far the most technologically advanced species on Earth, but we often look to nature for inspiration. In “Nature’s Wild Ideas,” Kristy Hamilton explains how the anatomy of lobster eyes provided a blueprint for the design of x-ray telescopes. Similarly, the movement patterns of ants and bees led to innovations in traffic management. And studies of tardigrades — those miniscule masters of survival — have been key in developing better methods of refrigeration.
“What to Expect When You’re Expecting Robots” was authored by two roboticists who believe we need to approach automation in a mindful way. Laura Major and Julie Shah tell us robots are here to stay. As these mechanized assistants become both more populous and sophisticated, we will depend on them in our daily lives for many tasks beyond vacuuming floors. The authors present an optimistic hope for a safer, more efficient world, but only so long as we make sure robots “know how to behave.” That means no blocking doorways, or, say, running down pedestrians.
We tend to look to Silicon Valley to see what’s on the tech horizon, and it’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. Today’s start-up culture was largely influenced by one person. Alec Nevala-Lee’s book “Inventor of the Future, the Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller” opens with a scene recounting a now legendary 1980 meeting between Fuller and Steve Jobs. At the time, Fuller was the more famous of the two, known for his geodesic dome designs, promotion of renewable energy and ideas that human life could be improved through engineering. Nevala-Lee’s biography shows a highly flawed human, who nonetheless made an outsized impact with his utopian visions.
“Chip War” by Chris Miller goes for a deep dive into the history of the semiconductor industry, starting with the first transistors manufactured in the 1950s and continuing to the present-day supply chain issues. Miller paints a multi-faceted picture of exactly how computer chips have become essential to our lives (in 2021, “…the chip industry produced more transistors than the combined quantity of all goods produced by all other companies, in all other industries…”), proved instrumental in globalization and sparked an economic rivalry between the United States and China.
The path to invention is sometimes strewn with societal barriers, as Katrine Marçal points out in “Mother of Invention.” The book contains an eye-opening discussion of suitcases and wheels — specifically the reason it took ages to unite the two things. Luggage company executives decided “real men” would balk at anything suggesting they weren’t strong enough to carry their own bags. Throughout history, rigid gender stereotypes like this have held back the development of technologies that could help us all. In the not too distant past, many countries even denied women the right to hold patents.
Numerous women pursued their ideas anyway, as we learn in “Female Innovators Who Changed Our World” by Emma Shimizu. It’s a quick read, with concise, encyclopedia-like entries. Many of the women and their work were familiar to me: Rosalind Franklin’s DNA discoveries and Ada Lovelace’s early coding algorithms. Other passages were revelations. For instance, I learned about Alice Parker, an African American woman born in 1885, who filed the first patent for a thermostat-controlled central heating system. Invention has never been limited to one gender, even if credit has been.
Irene Vallejo Moreu takes us way back in time with “Papyrus, the Invention of Books in the Ancient World.” In fact, she discusses the invention of writing itself. Then she moves forward to scrolls, tablets and the forerunner of our modern books, the codex. Moreu also examines the role of ancient libraries in the development of civilization. As a library employee, I believe one of the most important inventions in history is the book, because without it many other inventions would not have been possible.