John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

History meme: Inventions

Inventions! Now that's more like it. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an inventor when I grew up. Granted, my idea of what an inventor did was informed largely by comic books, and who wouldn't want to be like Professor Keenbean? Or Lex Luthor? A good version of Lex Luthor, I mean, one who didn't rob banks or try to kill Superman but otherwise resembled the brilliant, compulsive inventor portrayed in Eliot S. Maggin's novels Superman: Last Son of Krypton and Superman: Miracle Monday:

The only objects in Luthor's cell after ten o'clock lights out were a legal pad and a ball-point pen. ... One night, in a loose moment, Luthor figured out how to melt the plastic cap of the pen, let a certain amount drip into the ink refill, extract a substance from the glue that bound the legal pad, wrap it all in half a sheet of yellow paper and make an explosive powerful enough to blast out a wall of his cell. Luthor would never do that, of course. If he did, the next time he was in jail the warden wouldn't give him his pen and pad.

Luthor was adept at writing in the dark. He would sleep for a minute, or an hour or two, or not at all, and as an idea struck him he would scrawl it on a clean sheet of yellow paper. He replaced his pad about twice a week. This was a particularly productive night, for his cold kept him from sleeping. From the position of the full moon that shone through the window opposite his cell it looked to be about 6:10 in the morning. On the eighth page of a pad that was new when night fell Luthor drew by moonlight a sketch for a new kind of barometer whose design was based on the shell configuration of a certain extinct mollusk. (Last Son, pp. 138-39)

Alas, neither being a genius (criminal or otherwise) nor having an unimaginably wealthy patron with bottomless pockets, being an inventor wasn't in the cards. But I do enjoy histories about how things were invented. One of my favorites, and arguably the one against which all such histories should be judged, is Dava Sobel's Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, which is not about the invention of longitude, but the invention of a portable clock accurate enough that it could be used to determining longitude at sea. Navigating without knowing the longitude was frequently inaccurate and not infrequently deadly, so John Harrison's marine chronometer really did represent a sea change (sorry) in naval navigation and accelerated the rise of European colonialism. It's a fascinating story, beautifully told. Honestly, I'd recommend it to anyone, but if you're at all interested in science or sailing or engineering, it's a must read.

Another book about an invention I found very interesting was Richard Whittle's The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey, which is about the development of a tiltrotor aircraft for the U.S. military. (A tiltrotor is what it sounds like: a propeller assembly that can be rotated 90 degrees in flight, allowing the same craft to take off and land like a helicopter but fly forward like a conventional turboprop airplane.) Honestly, it's as much a political history as a history of an invention, but for me that was perfect, because I was very slightly involved with the political side of the story. See, back in the early 90s, when I was a legislative correspondent for U.S. Senator Don Riegle, I was briefly assigned to respond to mail dealing with the military. One of the hot issues of the day was the V-22 Osprey, which promised to revolutionize military aviation ... if they could figure our how to keep it from crashing, which at the time they couldn't. By 1993, the project was billions of dollars over budget and months behind schedule, and the prototypes had been indefinitely grounded after a crash that killed seven Marines. I was all in favor of defunding the project -- as did Dick Cheney, one of the rare instances where he and I agreed on something -- and as I recall most of the mail we got on the subject was in opposition to the project. I don't think the Senator ever took an actual stance on it -- he wasn't very interested in the military -- and the Clinton administration liked the project so it was not defunded and eventually they did get it to work, and it's being used successfully by all branches of the military today. I wouldn't give this one as unqualified a recommendation as Longitude, but if you're interested in politics, the military, engineering, or aviation, I'd recommend you check it out.

Tags: dc, history, omphaloskepsis, reading: books, superman

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