A journalist delivers an enthusiastic overview of inventions and the researchers that study them.
Kennedy (The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution, 2008, etc.), the former “Innovation” columnist for the New York Times Magazine, emphasizes that some inventions—e.g., the rolling suitcase, sippy cup, computer apps, prosthetics—fulfill a need. Others (Velcro, Teflon, X-rays, the laser) emerge as oddball phenomena with no obvious use at the time of their invention, and years may pass before people discover what they are good for. While Kennedy seems to have a low opinion of the concept of inspiration, she finds that breakthroughs often follow happy accidents. For example, researchers testing a heart medication discovered that subjects were getting erections, so the medication became Viagra. Kennedy pays close attention to science fiction and futurology, perhaps more than results justify. In the 1960s, observers who saw the future of communications, which gave us the personal computer, cellphone, and Internet, hit the jackpot because the development of computer chips was genuinely revolutionary. Improvements in energy technology and medicine have been modest, so futurists who have routinely predicted interplanetary travel and cancer cures have a dismal record. In the concluding chapters, the author explores how inventors think. One scientist told her that “the ‘aha’ moment is overrated.” Kennedy notes how the “real creativity and insight occur as people struggle with a problem in their minds” and then as they translate that into reality. “Inventology” may be a real science; researchers are beginning to study it, and teachers are teaching it. Some 21st-century creations (crowdfunding, 3D printing) are breaking down barriers (money, time) between new ideas and a useful product, so a golden age of innovation seems in the offing.
A delightful account of how inventors do what they do.