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Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World Hardcover – January 26, 2016
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Usually, that means that the topic of the book is something alarming: some horrible injustice or a situation which desperately needs to be corrected. Inventology, though, is mostly good news. Our lives are being improved not merely by new inventions, but by what Ms. Kennedy calls the "democratization" of invention. Many inventions of our time have come from large industrial laboratories such as the celebrated Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey. (That laboratory, now owned by Nokia, is yet operating.) Now, however, the World Wide Web has made it possible for independent laboratories and individual inventors to access a wealth of information, so the formerly tight circle of scientists working on top-secret projects has now expanded to include . . . YOU!
In addition to expedient access to information, modern inventors no longer must stake the family fortune on a device which may or may not become successful, because crowd-funding sites provide ready capital to develop an idea. Another welcome development is crowd-sourcing. In the past, large corporations, such as the auto industry, would refuse to consider any innovation which was Not Invented Here, not in-house, something that they'd have to pay to use. Now, thanks to public sites such as InnoCentive, many large corporations turn to the public to solve their problems by offering substantial cash prizes for useful suggestions.
Often experts in their discipline overlook a practical solution, and the book cites several examples where people far outside a field have suggested prize-winning solutions (practical ideas which have sometimes angered the experts). Even better, since the public in general is invited to participate, many solutions and innovations have come from minorities and women, those to whom the doors of the laboratory had previously been closed. We now have more solutions to more problems because the number of people devising solutions has thus increased exponentially.
That's pretty good, isn't it?
Years ago, the president of the H. L. Mencken Society told me that, excepting newspaper reporters, there were fewer than one-hundred people in the United States who made a living solely from writing. I can't confirm the accuracy of that, but Pagan Kennedy is one of those people, and there's a reason for that — she's a versatile writer and a fine stylist (except for page 208, where she refers to "a price point" — why not simply "a price"?).
But I have a few complaints. Inventology spends many pages discussing the solution to the problem of sailors determining longitude, and she credits John Harrison (1693−1776) with proposing that a ship's clock would enable a navigator to determine how far west the ship was at noon. Harrison was an important maker of marine clocks, but the idea of using such a clock to determine longitude had been around for many years before Harrison, and there were many previous attempts to devise a clock which would be reliable at sea.
On page 166, Ms. Kennedy describes how automobiles are painted: "The car would be driven into a special booth and paper sheets would be taped over its windshield and other areas that needed to be kept free of paint." She mentions this as an analogy for a human tanning method, but vehicles and their components have always been painted long before any glass or trim is installed. Automakers don't use masking tape.
Many pages are spent on Genrich Altshuller (1926-1998), who might be thought of as the Russian Buckminster Fuller. Altshuller, who was tortured and imprisoned during the era of Stalin, wrote science fiction and developed the TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) movement, but Ms. Kennedy does not make clear how TRIZ methods led to any things or techniques which we use today — just as we admire Buckminster Fuller, but we don't use any of his inventions. (Still, I guess it's nice to give such visionary eccentrics a shout-out.)
Because this book covers so many ideas and inventions, it sometimes describes each inadequately. For example, she (to her credit) introduces the late Doug Engelbart (along with the use of LSD by him and others), but I don't feel that she gives adequate coverage to the scope of his work, and what's provided is reported in a matter-of-fact tone. For the best account of Engelbart giving "The Mother of All Demos" read the section devoted to it in What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry by John Markoff and you'll understand that Engelbart was actually a man from the future (or some other point in the space-time continuum). Ms. Kennedy may be correct that when Engelbart "was dealing lightning with both hands" (in the account of one witness), not every member of the audience realized what was actually going on, but it only took a few . . . and so here we are.
My final complaint (to avoid too sour a review) is that, like many Americans, Ms. Kennedy continues to quote the blague from Thomas Edison's press agent. Thomas Edison is the most overrated person in history (with the possible exception of John the Baptist), and not only did he not invent the light bulb or anything else we use today, but in the War of the Currents, he set the United States back and at a disadvantage to the rest of the world. No serious book on invention should mention his name. (I live in a cement house, but not one of Edison's design, all of which are perfectly awful.)
I can't leave without mentioning another topic discussed in this book: how do we invent? Where do ideas come from? That's a popular subject, and other reviews here mention other such Inventology books. My recommendation on the topic, in addition to this book, is The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention by William Rosen. I favor both books because they place little stock in the popular theories of Malcolm Gladwell. I suppose that I like both books, because I admire the brilliant people profiled in them, people who are better (smarter, more productive) than I am.
It's good to have heros.
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The flow from chapter to chapter is so smooth and no repeated or just to fill the book type of writing
Mind stimulating and...Read more