Canadian Consulting Engineer

General Interest: Microwave to Mouse

June 1, 2002
By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng

Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer fame loved pranks and jokes as well as building computers. One of his early inventions was a "blue box" that allowed him to make free phone calls. With it he called the...

Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer fame loved pranks and jokes as well as building computers. One of his early inventions was a “blue box” that allowed him to make free phone calls. With it he called the Pope and actually got through to his secretary. The Pope, however, was apparently asleep. This is one of many anecdotes and insights into the lives of 35 carefully chosen American inventors and their inventions told by David E. Brown in his recent book. Inventing Modern America, from the Microwave to the Mouse, published by the MIT Press this year.

All 35 subjects have made important contributions to modern science and everyday life. They range from card-carrying geeks, to mothers of invention and bright black sparks fighting a wall of prejudice. We get a glimpse of their lives, their vision, their successes and failures, both scientific and personal. We also gain some insight into the inventive mind. Many of the inventors were engineers who did not fit into the corporate straitjacket.

In the foreword Lester C. Thurow reminds readers that the development of technology is a mysterious, non-linear process and that inventiveness is not the property of any one nation. Despite the determinedly American focus (“a book to encourage Americans to keep inventing”), many of the world’s greatest inventions were not American. Mentioning this fact does not, of course, diminish the accomplishments of these inventors, it just acknowledges the giants upon whose shoulders they stood.

The book is divided into five categories, each introduced by science historian James Burke. The choice of inventions goes beyond the conventional “better mouse trap” idea. Transportation, for example, includes the expected inventions such as the liquid-fueled rocket, but also the virtual transport of the imagination in the shape of a flying dinosaur. A brief look at the work of a few of the inventors in this book conveys its essence.

Meet Raymond Damadian, the inventor of the Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) machine, a diagnostic tool for mapping the body’s internal organs that is now used in every major North American hospital. Geneticist Mary-Claire King located the gene that leads to hereditary breast cancer. She also used her genetic analysis techniques to locate the children of “the disappeared” in Argentina and help them find their relatives. The military dictatorship had “disappeared” parents and given their children to infertile couples during the 1970s.

The next time your TV goes on the blink producing a screen full of grey flickering lines, think of Philo T. Farnsworth. The temporary problem gives an idea of his method of image transmission. By scanning lines of image, transmitting the information and decoding the image with the help of a cathode ray tube, he essentially developed the television. One of Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton’s inventions is the stroboscope, but a fascinating less common device he came up with is the Rapatronic camera. Exposures of a millionth of a second produce some of the exquisite pictures in the book: a, milk drop hitting a surface and forming a crown, or the golfer whose swing is captured every split second of the way. Other easily recognizable consumer products include Stephanie Kwolek’s Kevlar, Leo Baekeland’s Bakelite, and Percy Spencer’s microwave.

Rocket scientist Robert Goddard dreamed of sending objects into space, the ultimate destination for travel. So did a deaf Russian schoolteacher, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Goddard experimented until he succeeded. Tsiolkovsky never did. Working only in theory he managed to produce drawings of spacecraft that apparently are very similar to the space shuttle.

No mention of transportation technology would be complete without the mention of Henry Ford and his assembly line. The moving line that introduced efficient mass production, and not a little grief for the mass producers, made his famous car a household name. But few households have heard of Garrett Morgan, inventor of the traffic signal to control those cars. Morgan also invented the safety hood, which allowed firefighters to enter smoke-filled sites. He won a gold medal for his invention and orders for his product. However, the wave of publicity that followed the successful use of the hood in a major fire exposed Morgan. He was black. When customers discovered this, many cancelled their orders.

For sheer tragedy and heroism it is hard to beat the story of George Washington Carver. It is also hard to beat Sally Fox’s story for patience and determination. The ex-slave and the modern woman are separated by time and circumstance, but their stories are threaded together by a common love of the land, by uncommon patience and by cotton. Carver developed techniques for restoring land exhausted by cotton, while Fox developed coloured cottons that did not require the environmentally damaging processes normally used for treating white cotton. Ashok Gadgil looked to his scientific training for a solution to a different environmental problem: contaminated drinking water in rural India. The result was an effective, economical water treatment system using ultraviolet sterilization.

Sometimes we catch site of a woman in an old movie frantically plugging in phone lines. That switchboard operator has long since been replaced by the electronic switching system designed by Erna Schneider Hoover. Video games may not be every parent’s idea of a blessing, but the millions of young people who have never heard of Nolan Bushnell have him to thank for their fun. Radio buff Al Gross loved to talk to other radio buffs, but he also liked to walk about and so was born the walkie-talkie.

Inventing Modern America is written with clarity and a lightness of touch. It paints a picture of the inventor’s origins, background, struggles personal and technical. This tribe of tinkerers and dreamers often came from humble backgrounds, endured family tragedy, prejudice, failure and disappointment. Raymond Damadian’s MRI was met with ridicule. To R. Buckminster Fuller who built the geodesic dome inventing was an alternative to committing suicide. A number of them enjoyed stunning success. Their stories are meant to encourage and inspire.

Included in each biographical portrait is a thumbnail sketch of the scientific principles of the invention, with references to more detailed information at the end. A recurring theme runs through many of the stories. The inventors wanted to benefit humanity in some way. They did not always succeed — sometimes their inventions found their way into the military or had unintended outcomes. When they did succeed in bringing benefits to people, they were extremely gratified.

Many of the inventors continue to work away at new ideas, and some of them are passionate about passing on their knowledge and experience. Steve Wozniak is one of those. Apple had made him millions of dollars. When a serious accident interfered with his ability to concentrate, he decided to do other things and found himself teaching young people about computers. In the spirit of self-discovery he reportedly told a biographer, “I was born to teach. I plan to be a fifth-grade teacher of computers and just get better and better at it.” With ambition as unpretentious and humbling as this, he might just find that in the future it is the Pope who is calling him.

Rosalind C. Cairncross, P.Eng. lives in Toronto and is a contributing editor to Canadian Consulting Engineer.


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