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100 Greatest Inventions of all Time: A Ranking Past and Present Hardcover – August 1, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Though the idea of ranking inventions might seem a little silly, Philbin's catalog of machines and tools that have changed the world proves a surprisingly absorbing read-largely because of the author's brisk, fact-filled and gossipy descriptions. His entry for invention #2, for example, not only recounts how Thomas Edison used plain-old cotton thread to invent the electric light bulb, it also reveals Edison himself to be "a work-obsessed, sometimes ruthless, egoistic man who could be obscene and a little crude." Similarly, in reading about the development of general anesthesia (invention #34), one learns that British chemist Joseph Priestly isolated the gas nitrous oxide in 1776 and that "enlightened members of society" used to hold "ether frolics" in which they reveled in the gas's intoxicating properties. Even a seemingly obvious entry like "nail" (invention #36) yields an intriguing account of the old artisan profession of "nailor." Philbin clearly has a knack for making even the driest facts yield narrative juice. Anyone in the mood for a pleasant survey of science history would do well to buy his book.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
CITATION: Philbin, T. (2003). The 100 greatest inventions of all time: a ranking past and present. New York: Citadel Press.
Reviewer Dr W. P. Palmer.
The version being reviewed is a paperback book, 294 pages long, well illustrated in black and white, containing one hundred inventions, preceded by a contents page and introduction, followed by an index. I observe that other reviewers have not been greatly impressed by the book and there is truth in their observations. Questions that need to be asked are ‘who are the audience for this book?’ and ‘how should the book be used?’. The book was published in 2003, has not been revised. Consider the number of new inventions in the past ten years and think how much these would change a book of this type! There are also minor inaccuracies that need correction. Thus, it cannot be a book recommended without reservation. It is however very competitively priced in paperback; it contains huge amounts of information, often a little differently expressed than may be found on the internet, so it can certainly be considered a useful book for reference.
With regard to the idea that it is possible to grade inventions in terms of ‘greatness’; this is an obvious fallacy! The boomerang is not mentioned; is it a greater or less great invention than the bow and arrow? The difference between discovery and invention is considered in Philbin’s introduction and his definition is dubious; his application of this definition throughout the book is somewhat inconsistent. However this is splitting hairs, Tom Philbin has provided a useful book, now in need of revision, which provides valuable information inexpensively, and is great for dipping into as a starting point for further discussion and research.
The inventions cited range from the prehistoric to the latter half of the twentieth century. They concentrate, it seems, more on inventions that require some sort of mechanical embodiment, leaving out any that deal with compositions of matter, with the lone exception of paint. Thus he ignores bakelite, polyethylene, and other plastics which have transformed our century. And also he forgets the invention of bronze, iron, steel, ceramics and clear glass. Chemical inventions such as tanning, Haber's nitrogen fixation, electrolysis, and other synthetic methods are ignored. He forgets soap, and antisepsis.
Cloth and rope are not here. Nor are the crops or the inventions of agriculture included: hay and wheat, all methods for the preservation of food, fertilizer, domestication of animals, methods for breeding animals and plants, irrigation. These are the basic inventions that moved us from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, and would seem to belong in a list that includes the plow and the wheel.
There is also, it appears to this reader, a distasteful pre-occupation with weapons of war: the tank, submarine, nuclear weapon, bow and arrow, gunpowder, pistol, rifle, cannon, rocket, barbed wire, dynamite, radar are all given. The spear, atlatl, personal armor, pike, trebuchet, machine gun and land mine are sundry examples of man's deviousness and ingenuity in the killing arts which might just as well have been included.
The methods used for the selection, and the apparently intentional ignoring of entire fields of innovation, is not discussed. No bibliography nor acknowledgements of previous attempts along these lines are provided either.
Philbin's greatest omission,though, is that he forgot to include the invention of the scientific method, used as a basis for many of the inventions he does list. This too, together with the invention of logic, geometry and mathematics, is certainly at least on a par with the VCR! Financial innovations, as well as any business oriented methods are left out, as is the Web, ebay and Amazon!
The book is lavishly illustrated with many diagrams and excerpts from the patent literature, and is thought provoking at times, but on the whole is rather inadequate to the task, I think. The writing style is rather leaden and it was hastily written, one discerns at a glance. And the insulting remark about Shockley, inventor of the transistor: "One other thing is remarkable about his life: he died of natural causes." is juvenile and gratuitous.
However, the text disappointed me. Every invention has three important parts: 1. Science and 2. Story of invention and 3. Story of the inventor. Science part should explain how the gizmo works. Story of the invention should tell how it was invented. And the story of the inventor should tell about the inventor. Instead of finding the real science, story and timeline behind these inventions, the author skims the subject at a very high level, sometimes wandering into unnecessary description of politics.
Inclusion of Condom as an invention caused me not to buy this for my child. I borrowed it from a local library with full intention of purchasing it later. But that particular invention is a sensitive subject. Not arguing whether the author should have included it or not. Just saying that because of that I don't find myself comfortable to give it to my son for independent reading. Others may disagree with me and I would respect their opinion.
Overall I like the book. So three stars instead of two.