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Imagination and a Pile of Junk:

A Droll History of Inventors and Inventions

Trevor Norton

(London Times)

'They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother / When they said that man could fly.' So goes the classic George and Ira Gershwin number They All Laughed. The song's premise is that great inventions - the steamboat, the cotton gin, the chocolate bar - seem ridiculous when they first appear. It is only with time that we appreciate their genius and the inventor - 'Ha, ha ha!' - gets the last laugh.

In his whistle-stop tour of inventions large and small, the scientist Trevor Norton shares the Gershwins' view that invention is fundamentally comic. He takes his title from Thomas Edison’s line that to invent, you need 'a good imagination and a pile of junk'.

Invention, in Norton's view, is flukey and inventors are a 'mixed bunch of bold, brilliant and sometimes barmy eccentrics'. The book, which covers everything from steam engines to robotic hands, implies that the more ground-breaking an invention was, the more likely it was to be mocked when first presented to the public.

Telephones, for example, were deemed pointless by the head of the General Post Office, because there were 'plenty of small boys to run messages', while in 1881, the Post Office's chief engineer had thought electric lighting 'a completely idiotic idea'. As for Wilbur Wright and his brother Orville, they were indeed ridiculed during their early experiments with aviation. Even after they had successfully flown their Flyer I for nearly a minute in 1903, and been photographed doing so, one newspaper still ran the headline 'Flyers or Liars?'

But it is not so surprising that 'they all laughed', when you consider how far-fetched most inventions seem before they are adopted. By definition, inventors are looking at the world anew, so no wonder it takes the rest of us a while to catch up. When Robert Stephenson was pioneering locomotive steam engines from the 1820s onwards, many feared that travelling at more than 20 miles an hour could send passengers mad, or damage their eyes from the sheer rush of the landscape through the window. Stephenson wisely downplayed the novelty of rail travel, falsely assuring a House of Commons committee that his trains would not exceed 12mph. The amazing thing was how quickly the public came to accept this new mode of transport, which, as Stephenson himself said, seemed to have the 'fabled powers of the magician's wand'.

Not every invention has brought the same benefits as the railways. Some of the most amusing bits of Norton's book - whose short chapters encourage you to dip in at random rather than read sequentially - concern those inventions that didn't quite make the grade. It may have been wrong with hindsight to laugh at the Wright brothers but, as Norton points out, most early attempts at flight ended up as 'junk'. Take the 'bumblebee' invented by Joseph Kaufmann of Glasgow. This was a contraption weighed down with a 2.5-tonne steam engine whose wings 'flapped so fast they snapped'. It needed the assistance of a crane to get airborne, which rather defeated the purpose.

Even with successful inventions, Norton shows, it takes multiple attempts - and, therefore, failures - before the thing is right. The Hungarian Laszlo Biro was quick to see the possibilities of using fast-drying newspaper ink in a pen, but it took him years to develop a ballpoint tip that would allow the ink to flow.

Sometimes, the inventor is comically blind to the invention's true appeal. In 1893, a Chicago engineer, Whitcomb Judson, thought he had created a brilliant shoe-closing device for people too chubby to manage shoelaces. But Judson's primitive shoe-zip 'neither zipped nor fastened reliably' and it would be another 37 years before the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli thought to put a zip fastener on a woman's dress.

Another source of comedy in Norton's history of invention is our changing sense of what matters. Past inventors lavished great brainpower on solving problems that now seem pointless or weird. We have completely forgotten 'the self-doffing hat', for example. Likewise, the 'security coffins' that were still available as recently as the 1970s. These addressed the widespread paranoia of being buried alive. George Bateson's Life Revival Device of 1852 included a cord with a bell tied to the hand of the corpse. 'Should the corpse revive he would pull the cord and ring the bell in the hope that someone with a spade was within earshot.'

Many inventions have been far less comical, however. Norton himself notes that 'without vaccines half my readers would have been dead before they were old enough to read', which is not such a funny thought. But he leaves little room in this 'droll history' for pondering the more serious aspects of invention. Although he covers such weighty breakthroughs as organ transplants and X-rays, he does not give himself the space to do them justice before rushing on to lavatory paper, say, or 3D printing.

There is little reflection on what invention actually is; or why certain societies innovate more than others. He suggests that George Orwell 'invented' brainwashing and that Jules Verne 'predicted' the internet. Er ... no. Mrs Beeton is included as an 'inventor', which is bizarre, when she plagiarised her recipes and invented nothing.

This book gives a strong sense of why inventors have always been laughed at, but not enough, to quote the Gershwins again, of 'who's got the last laugh now'.

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