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How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0195341201
ISBN-10: 0195341201
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Lienhard is enthralled with invention, how it happens and how inventions both shape and are shaped by culture. He posits that the quest for a single canonical inventor of a new technology is illusory, because all inventions are the sum of many contributors. To make his point, Lienhard (professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston and host of public radio's The Engines of Our Ingenuity) traces the development of airplanes and steam engines, among other technologies, in a lucid style filled with interesting forays into origins and biography. But the author is also fascinated by what is best described as the invention of the spread of knowledge. The second half of the book is an examination of how Gutenburg's printing press began a worldwide explosion of knowledge that traces its roots to the incunabula, books written between 1455 and 1500, and ends with the mass production of books for popular consumption. Lienhard also pays tribute to the development of the public library, museums, correspondence courses and universities as means of education. The author's personality permeates his writing, and it's impossible not to admire his optimism, his far-reaching knowledge and his enthusiasm for learning. 120 illus. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review


"Watt's genius was in devising a practical engine; Lienhard's genius is in telling the real story of invention."--New Scientist Magazine


"Lienhard is enthralled with invention, how it happens and how inventions both shape and are shaped by culture. He posits that the quest for a single canonical inventor of a new technology is illusory, because all inventions are the sum of many contributors. To make his point, Lienhard (host of public radio's The Engines of Our Ingenuity) traces the development of airplanes and steam engines, among other technologies, in a lucid style filled with interesting forays into origins and biography.... The author's personality permeates his writing, and it's impossible not to admire his optimism, his far-reaching knowledge and his enthusiasm for learning."--Publishers Weekly


"Lienhard, a graceful and perceptive writer, has produced a popular book that may well seduce the general public away from received hero myths without denigrating those myths."--Technology and Culture


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (June 30, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195341201
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195341201
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 0.9 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,276,654 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Alexander T. Gafford on August 29, 2006
Format: Hardcover
For a while, I was a member of SHOT, the Society for the History of Technology. Although I found a few things of interest, the overwhelming view I gained was of earnest left wing intellecutuals trying to deconstruct everything into nothing. Here is a book that can meet the academic muster but contains more of substance than warmed over social theory.

The basic structure of the book is based on the development of...... the book itself, starting from Gutenberg and moving to the mass produced book of today. Along the way two main ideas are explored. First, that necessity is not the mother of invention, desire is the mother of invention. This point is well argued and sensibly made. Second, that every invention is a concantenation of inventions that led to the tipping point when something reached a critical point in which it became the recognizable thing of history. At that tipping point is found the famous or named inventor whose role should neither be slighted or exaggerated.

In making these two points as well as developing an approach to the statistics of inventional progress, Lienhard digresses from bookmaking to steam engines, railroads, the role of women and the development of schools. All these digressions are perfectly entertaining and thoughtful.

All in all, I fully recommend the book. For my personal taste I would have liked more math in it, like the little bit in the notes at the back that explains why we can blow both cold and hot with our breath. The book is wonderfully illustrated with many illustrations from historic texts.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A. J. Sutter on June 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is a very attractive book to pick up, because it's richly illustrated with period illustrations (mostly engravings and patent diagrams) of old inventions. And reading it offers many moments of interest, especially in Part I of the book, where John Lienhard (JL) discusses the ambiguous notion of priority of inventorship, i.e., who was the first to invent something. But the whole doesn't quite stick together.

The book was written when JL was already an emeritus professor. The choice of topics jumps around -- the priority theme is shifted somewhat in part II, which focuses on "steam and speed", then gets blurred even more in Part III, on the rise of texts and scientific illustration, before returning in the last chapter. This structure, together with JL's many personal reminiscences, makes it feels like a rather relaxed amble through miscellaneous topics and themes that intrugued JL during the years, rather than a tightly-structured argument. Not that some of the ambles and rambles aren't interesting -- I especially enjoyed learning about early flying machines and how the Wright Brothers pitched their propellers, and an anecdote JL tells in the last chapter about dropping a glass rod makes a very nice practical point about the relationship between mathematical models and reality.

However, I was frustrated by some other aspects of the book. Most of the historical topics, such as the history of printing technology and its social impact, are far better-treated in other books. A three-page mini-history of computing (@159-162) lapsed into the same teleological narrative that JL is at pains to criticize elsewhere in the book; e.g., he claims that the idea of "creating a machine to execute a string of instructions ...
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Lowther on September 7, 2008
Format: Paperback
Very well written summary of the arc of invention that leads to significant advances. Mr. Lienhard discusses many of the contributing refinements that lead to the development of flight, steam engines, printing, education, libraries and other significant advancements. His premise is that no invention is developed in a vacuum. Many actors contribute to the eventual creation of an invention. Those actors have different motivation and endure considerable hardships on their way to participating in the discovery. These inventors seem to share an underlying theme or notion which Mr. Lienhard identifies with this quote:

Inventing means violating some status quo. If we do not exert some freedom from rebellion we do not invent. It might be freedom from external proscription, or it might e freedom from chains forged in our own minds. Al the great inventive epochs of the world have been marked by climates of increased personal liberty.

This book is a wonderful read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ernest Kovacs on March 22, 2010
Format: Paperback
John Lienhard brings his sweeping fund of historical and technological knowledge to the page with grace and wit I wish I had found in college. His ideas about the advance and expansion of human endeavor moving inevitably toward invention is thoughtfully and cleverly expressed through historical narrative and technical description. As a psychiatrist I especially appreciated the attention he gives to the role of desire and fantasy in the creation of new invention. He makes it clear that there is more than necessity being the mother of invention. Perhaps necessity is the mother and desire is the father. I digress.
I found the book to be absorbing, informative and entertaining. What more can anyone ask?
Bravo Dr. Lienhard.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book reminds of the British TV series CONNECTIONS, because the truth behind so many inventions in pre and post Industrial Revolution era is that they were a product of many hundreds of years of conscious development, failures, evolution and improvements, sharing/borrowing or even robbery of ideas. An appreciable fragment of imagination and information sharing runs from the first reaction turbines built by Hero to the modern high efficiency gas turbines used in jet engines first commercialized by Sir. Frank Whittle.

I was taught in school while growing up that James Watt was the inventor of the steam engine. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Watt only realized an improved version of Papin's and Newcomen's engine that led to a remarkable spike in operating efficiency because he learned, among other things, how to separate the condensation/vacuum process from the pressure cylinder. The idea of a lone inventor operating in a vaccuum from developments that have gone on in the past or going on concurrently is a total myth and it continues to be used in professional circles today.

Mr. Leinhard's perspectives on inventive motivation and exponential change left a strong impression on me. The efficiency of steam engines have just crawled upward since the 1930's and today a number of engineers are involved in the collective practice of improving it merely by tiny fractions. Some engineers devote 30 years of their professional life to this goal. That's astounding when you step back and look at it.

The reality of the matter is, the primary development of the steam engine has been complete (35-40% efficiency) because man is thwarted by the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
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