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Inventions and America Today

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“Sally Fox didn’t invent colored cotton…” but she revolutionized “ecologically friendly ” clothes production in 1989. “Inventing Modern America” by David E. Brown biographies the inventors behind our technological world. “Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse” with an introduction by Lester C. Thurow is from MIT Press (http://mitpress.mit.edu) and the Lemelson-MIT Program for Invention and Innovation. Check out the book’s website at http://www.inventingmodernamerica.com/ .

I cannot say I am reviewing the book because its’ author, David E. Brown, “New York based writer and editor”; is related to me and a reviewer should reserve the right to say a few negative and snide things. Luckily, there are none to say.

This is the kind of science book that stays rooted in understandable reality for those of us who love to think about science but don’t have the background to delve into the physics of it, the mathematics of it and the deep thoughts of the working scientist and inventor. It is a little like a science course I took with trepidation (my math skills are non-existent) at Bard College my first semester, “The Philosophy of Science”. Surprise! I loved it. It stuck to words and ideas about how scientists think and how world views are revolutionized pretty regularly.

David writes cogent prose stories of inventors who created the things that have shaped the modern world. I will start with mentioning Wilson Greatbatch whose name is not a household word even in my house. Yet he invented the cardiac pacemaker. ” It began”, David writes, with “A tiny mistake (that) led to the…pacemaker, a device that has helped millions of people lead longer and more active lives. In 1958, Wilson Greatbatch was building a small device to record the sounds a heart makes. He reached into a box full of resistors…and pulled the wrong one out…The finished device did something odd: It sent out a short pulse of electricity at an interval of one second…” That error and his understanding of what he had found became the first pacemaker which his surgeon-friend planted in a dog in May, 1958 “…and it worked.”

There is a very advanced version of one, a bi-ventricular pacing device with a miniature defibrillator in my chest now with three wires threaded through the veins into two ventricles of the heart and to the central node. It is my second pacing device in three years and, miraculously; has increased the power of a severely damaged heart about 200%. I get to write this years after the medics originally predicted my death because of this machine and of the process of non-invasive surgery on the heart . The inventor of the balloon catheter which “…marked the beginning of noninvasive surgery…” is Thomas Fogarty whose invention was first used in 1961. His, too, is not a household name in spite of the 4 catheterizations my “interventional cardiologist” has done in the past 2.5 years. As in all the chapters, David (a photo editor and avid photographer) maintains the excitement visually with pictures and page designs that make such a book a page-turner.

When we get to the “Computers and Telecommunications” section and the chapter on Steve Wozniak we learn more about his 1976 home- built computer, the Apple. There is also (as I type away on my pretty, white iBook G3) a great picture of a kit-built Apple from 1976 encased in a personalized, wood case.

The book constantly draws me back since many of these inventors are shadowy figures known only by their inventions. Ole Evinrude’s story is one fascinating story. Ever wonder about the beginnings of outboard motors? It is of interest for anyone with a curiosity of how things work, and; if you have a youngster with a budding interest in science and inventing, it is a book that will draw them into the history of inventions and the possibilities that a life

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  • This sounds like a good and accessible pop science book. Thanks for this review, francisco.