INVENTING THE 20TH CENTURY by Stephen van Dulken


100 Inventions that Shaped the World, From the Airplane to the Zipper
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A fascinating, though flatly presented, illustrated catalogue of inventions, arranged by decade.

“The process of invention is a mysterious one,” observes van Dulken, who then proceeds in lockstep fashion to demystify it. Following a stuffy introduction by Andrew Phillips (who establishes some rather obvious “family groups” of inventions—e.g., air, sea and space technology; synthetics and substitutes), van Dulken begins his breezy tour through 100 inventions chosen, he says, “for their stories.” He introduces each decade with a brief historical essay, never longer than two pages, admitting that such accounts are “necessarily very selective.” They are also more superfluous and superficial—and often patently political—than useful: the essay preceding the 1970s, for example, observes that “the USA withdrew at last from its moral and military morass in Vietnam.” Far more substantial, fortunately, are the two-page discussions of each invention, beginning with the airplane and ending with sildenafil citrate (Viagra). Van Dulken writes the history of each invention, then provides either an illustration or a narrative from the original patent application. The latter vary in effect. Most, like the 1916 rendering of the “self-service supermarket,” are clear and self-explanatory; others, like the drawing of the first bread-slicing machine, are merely confusing. Still, there is much to learn here—and much that is truly wonderful and amusing. One use of Willis Carrier’s first air-conditioner (1904) was “drying off newly made macaroni.” The zipper (1914) was not used on clothing until 1935. In the background of the Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations,” listeners can hear a Theremin (1924), the first electronic music producer. The inventor of the Slinky (1945) joined a cult and emigrated to Bolivia. There are 600 different sets of Lego building blocks (1958) with 2,069 elements. Van Dulken even finds room for an interesting discussion of “the major invention that never was”—cold fusion at the University of Utah (1989).

Engaging content desperately needing of a more inventive, less procrustean presentation. (100 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Nov. 27th, 2000
ISBN: 0-8147-8808-4
Page count: 241pp
Publisher: New York Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2000