Breezy social history of the inventors and entrepreneurs who transformed society with innovations in infrastructure and technology.
Weightman (London’s Thames, 2005, etc.) seeks to reverse the popular notion of the Industrial Revolution as “driven by some impersonal force.” His collection of individual life stories spans from the first major changes in manufacturing processes and iron smelting in 18th-century England to the growth of indigenous industries in Germany, Japan, France and the United States, which had eclipsed Britain’s supremacy by 1914. As the initially dominant innovator, England teemed with foreign spies maneuvering to uncover the secrets of textile spinning machines. British engineers found lucrative opportunities abroad as they shared expertise in canal building, steam railway, bridge and lighthouse construction. Weightman emphasizes the importance of this British expertise for creating infrastructure and driving innovation in both America and Japan, which also benefited from continental influences. French immigrant E.I. du Pont, fleeing from the Revolution, initiated the development of gunpowder in the United States, and American Samuel F.B. Morse, though he claimed to be the sole inventor of the electric telegraph, in fact built on European discoveries. Many of the worldwide pioneers who furthered technology had no background in engineering, notes the author, but these entrepreneurs partnered with the right technical minds to further their visions. Britain was overtaken as industrial leader in the second stage of the Industrial Revolution, as the age of steel, oil and electricity favored rapidly growing nations such as the United States and Germany. Weightman crams his narrative with anecdotes, such as the Russian fleet, sailing around Africa en route to war with Japan in 1904, taking time out for inland forays to acquire an exotic menagerie including “a boa constrictor which apparently developed a taste for vodka.” This fondness for excessive detail results in the book’s few memorable individuals getting lost among an “army of artisans.”
Like cotton candy—tasty yet somehow insubstantial.