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Eureka: How Invention Happens

Eureka: How Invention Happens - Gavin Weightman This summary of five inventions is an easy, engaging read, but it feels a bit disorganized at times. By the author's account, he simply set out to explore the inventions that influence our daily lives, but he emerged with a tale of invention by outsiders. He concludes that we cannot expect innovation from scientists or industry, but must rely on those outside the system.

His thesis of outsiders doesn't exactly work. He mentions the invention of the transistor (Bell Labs) in passing and portrays Faraday as an outsider to academia. Yes, certainly Faraday started outside academia, but lived most of his career inside it. Most people who end up in industry and academia in the last couple hundred years were not born into them -- they came from somewhere else. So I don't find his stories to really support his thesis.

So let's put that argument aside for the time being and just concentrate on the stories themselves. To tell the story of the cell phone, for instance, Weightman goes back to catch the invention of magnetic induction and then radio itself. He weaves together the development of the requirements for cell phones throughout history and shows how they worked in harmony to arrive at the invention of the cell phone. Same thing with the other inventions. Starting with the eureka moment of invention, he goes back and reviews what all had to happen to make that moment possible. Of course he can't cover everything, but he succeeds in putting these inventions in context.

But context is, inevitably, complicated. He ends up sharing unnecessary details of many people's lives in order to establish them as characters in the narrative, and this practice at times led the story to feel too big and complex. It was a little difficult to hold onto the main idea of what invention he was working toward in his story. This is somewhat to be expected. Any one of these 5 stories of invention could easily take up the whole book. History is indeed complicated, and none of these eureka moments arose out of the isolated genius of one man. Many inventions had to happen in order for each one to move forward.

In the end, I appreciated the story telling method, and it helped me see the development of these inventions in context, which is a good thing to do from a historical point of view. So this book is valuable and fun to read. It tells stories that are, in their essence, complicated and back-story-rich.