House of Invention: The Secret Life of Everyday Products

by David Lindsay

Published by The Lyons Press

179 pages, 2000


Scientific American: Inventions from Outer Space

by David Baker

Published by Random House

128 pages, 2000


Invention's Middle Name

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


In the introduction to House of Invention, author David Lindsay states his mandate very succinctly:

Any object, no matter how inert it appears, is invariably the result of a long and eminently human story. An invention may look like the paragon of convenience coming out of the box, but it was almost certainly born in crisis.

In the subsequent pages, Lindsay introduces us to these crisis. Robert Kearns who, when he took a champagne cork in the eye at his wedding in 1953, turned the subsequent permanent damage to his eyelid to good use when he later invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Or John Logie Baird whose failed early inventions -- including a dangerous glass razor and pneumatic shoes -- led finally to a device that could send moving images without a projector -- i.e. television. Or Polly Jacobs who, in 1914, patented her invention for the brassiere, a device that -- at its inception -- was intended to:

"... flatten down one's chest as much as possible," Jacobs later explained, "so the truth that virgins had breasts should not be suspected."

The origins -- and in some cases probable origins -- of pencils, the intercom, condoms, bank notes, the blender, Vaseline, breakfast cereal and many other everyday things are covered in House of Invention: The Secret Life of Everyday Products. Of course, much of this material has been gone over before in other works, but Lindsay's voice is crisp and he manages just the right blend of humor and careful explanation. An author and journalist based in New York City, Lindsay is no newcomer to the inventions beat. He is also the author of Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise and Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors and The Patent Files: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Invention.

David Baker's Scientific American: Inventions from Outer Space takes an extraterrestrial stance on the topic of invention. Published under the familiar Scientific American name and logo, the book doesn't make its connection with that organization clear. Though deeply fascinating, Inventions from Outer Space sometimes reads like a bit of well-executed NASA propaganda ("... NASA is not a newcomer to improving the lives of people on the Earth...") aimed -- through MTV-appropriate typography, glaring graphics and bright colors -- at a childish audience. As annoying as some of the boosterish text is, Inventions from Outer Space is incredibly interesting.

A solar water heater connected to a voice synthesizer that responds in a human voice when asked a question; thermal insulation for homes; water purifiers initially designed for space performance; athletic shoes with air pressure midsoles and so many other things: from mundane household items to things like traffic management and infrared urban planning, all owe their invention to the space program.

Inventions from Outer Space is not an exhaustive look and would, in fact, make a fun space primer for the children in your life, though it's not intended to be a kids' book. However, the explanations are not lengthy nor are they shared with any particular depth. The result is a book that seems more glitter -- lots of color photographs of everything from a dead dolphin drowned after being caught in a gillnet (on a spread that talks about safeguarding dolphins with NASA technology) to a swell-looking blonde in a space-age bathing suit (for microscopic riblets that, embedded across the breast and buttocks of a swimsuit, "reduce drag caused by turbulence." Neat). Serious readers will be irritated by the space age speed with which the information is imparted, but it's solid information, from a writer who clearly knows his stuff. Baker has written over 60 books -- many related in some way to the topics covered here -- and worked directly with NASA between 1965 and 1978: some pretty key years for that organization. Among other things, he is currently "a planning member of the NASA initiative for the human exploration of Mars." It's a CV that leaves nothing lacking when writing about NASA-related stuff. Overall Inventions from Outer Space offers a healthy introduction to this field, opening the door for your own research and exploration. | July 2000


Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.