Detailed summation of fascinating events, heavily weighted with academic presentation and requisite hair-splitting.




A studied consideration of revelations in electrical phenomena in 18th-century America as a cultural counterpart to the Enlightenment in Europe.

Delbourgo (History, Philosophy of Science/McGill Univ.) offers in-depth accounts of early American experiments to determine the nature of electricity—Benjamin Franklin, of course, front and center—characterized by the use of the experimenters’ own bodies as a principal instrument in the process. Needless to say, the tendency of American “electricians” (as those investigating the new phenomena were known on both sides of the Atlantic) to expose themselves and occasional willing volunteers to shocks of indeterminate and largely uncontrollable size makes for some of the most hair-raising records in the history of science. With powerful static charges from the newly discovered Leyden Jar (the prototypical battery) and storm-generated lightning itself as prime sources, injuries and, at times, deaths, were inevitable. But the author is swayed by scholarly intent from fully exploiting or dramatizing these events, being more drawn to examining the results as a collective epistemological experience that won reluctant acceptance for “colonial” science by its “metropolitan” counterpart in Europe in a persistently inflexible hierarchy. The book is still engrossing if read primarily as homage to Franklin and successors like Dr. T. Cole and Elisha Perkins. Franklin’s humility in simply reporting experimental results without posturing or postulating was a key factor in the acknowledgement by Europe that Americans were indeed partners in capturing lightning in a bottle. (Franklin’s concept of positive and negative charges, with a circulating “fluid” constantly seeking equilibrium was, however, on the money at a time when Europeans had little or no clue.) And in a perfect paradigm for the eternal conflict between religion and advancing sciences, the Puritan church initially condemned Franklin’s invention of a successful lightning rod as a blasphemous impediment to the deliverance of Divine retribution.

Detailed summation of fascinating events, heavily weighted with academic presentation and requisite hair-splitting.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-674-02299-8

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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